Updated: May 10, 2018
“MARY AND THE WITCH’S FLOWER”
Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD copy; PG for some action and thematic elements; streaming via Amazon Video, FandangoNOW, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
Best extra: “Interview with the Filmmakers”
WHEN Studio Ghibli co-founder, the incomparable Hayao Miyazaki, announced his retirement – again – in 2014, Ghibli stopped production of its animated films.
As of 2019, it’s back on track now that Miyazaki has found a new story to develop.
Meanwhile, a new studio jumped up when Ghibli producer Yoshiaki Nishimura founded Studio Ponoc in 2015, with Hiromasa Yonebayashi – called “Maro” – on board. Maro began his career at Studio Ghibli, honing his craft as an animated storyteller from clean-up to director of the Oscar nominated “When Marnie Was There” (2014). He has worked on “Princess Mononoke,” “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle.” Ponoc's first feature-length animated film, “Mary and the Witch’s Flower,” based on “The Little Broomstick” by Mary Stewart.
It’s a splendid yet simple children’s story about young Mary visiting her Great Aunt Charlotte in the British countryside. Mary tries to be useful, but only succeeds in making a mess. When local boy Peter teases her, she takes off into the forest with cats Tib and Gib. That’s where she finds a strange plant identified as a “fly-by-night.” When Gib disappears the next day, an anxious Tib leads Mary back to the plant and an ancient broomstick. Juice from the blossoms give her magical powers and repair the broomstick allowing Mary to fly away to a witches school in the clouds. It’s nothing like Hogwarts, but Ghibli-like enchantments and imagination are everywhere.
Still, all is not as it appears and, with Tib and Peter’s help, Mary uncovers the school’s dark secrets. Those magical powers only last one day. Can she rescue Gib, the other imprisoned animals and save her new friend? Can Mary finally tame her unruly red hair?
What do you think?
Like his mentor, the late Studio Ghibli co-founder Takahata Isao, Maro, Nishimura and Ponoc animators traveled to the British countryside for visual inspiration. The results – lush, painterly landscapes and skies – are strong representations of Ghibli training. Characters also look very much like Ghibli creations, although odd details, like facial shadowing, try to separate it.
Color is solid and rich in a beautiful 1080p transfer (1.85:1 ratio). Detail, texture and depth are excellent. There are some jaw-dropping moments, especially in the woodland scenes.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is also flawless in subtitled Japanese or English dub. (English track voices include Kate Winslet and Jim Broadbent.) Effects, whether in magical or natural moments, are dynamically immersive blending perfectly with dialogue and music.
There are several to choose from. Since this is Studio Ponoc’s first feature film, expect plenty of PR coverage and celebration. The “NTV Special: Creating ‘Mary and the Witch’s Flower – 500 Days Up Close’” is a 38 minute making-of honoring its Ghibli roots, with interviews, production and story building detail.
“A Special Conversation: Sekai No Owari, Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Yoshiaki Nishimura” reveals how Ponoc’s creative team and a popular Japanese band composed the film’s score. “Film Completion Press Conference” has interviews with the creators, Japanese cast members, and magical influences. A 10-minute “Theatrical Promotional Movie” features the lead voice actors, while a streamlined “Interview with the Filmmakers” provides a good showcase for Nishimura and Yonebayashi. There are also trailers and TV spots.
There are no surprises in “Mary and the Witch’s Flower.” It is a fine debut offering from Studio Ponoc, although many will find it too close to its Ghibli roots in style and story. Still, there’s enough imagination and skill here to predict more – and better – to come. Children should love this story and its characters. Adults will enjoy it, too.
- Kay Reynolds