Back in 2015, I wrote When Marnie Was There would be perfect as Studio Ghibli’s last film. Those missing Ghibli’s films are partially in luck. While Studio Ghibli has returned to feature film production, their next film is still several years away. However, Marnie‘s director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, left Ghibli with several others to form the new Studio Ponoc. While Ponoc may mean “the beginning of a new day,” you could be forgiven for thinking Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a Studio Ghibli film.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower is inspired by Mary Stewart’s The Little Broomstick, a book sadly long out of print. I found myself immediately trying to locate a copy after walking out of the premiere event for the subtitled version of Mary to compare the film to the book. Unfortunately, the book is so elusive, not even Portland’s own Powell’s Books has a copy, and what few copies are on Amazon are at a price point far too high to satisfy a little curiosity. Thankfully, it appears the book may soon go back in to print.
As the film’s title would suggest, our heroine’s name is Mary, a young girl who has recently moved to the countryside in the UK to live with her Great-Aunt Charlotte. Mary is extremely energetic, always willing to help out (but not very good at it), and loathes her frizzy red hair.
Warning: Spoilers below. Click here to skip. You may need to click twice due to images loading.
Yes, I do mean to use “loathes”; Mary’s disdain for her hair becomes very apparent when we are introduced to Peter, who calls Mary a, “little red-haired monkey.” While this may seem like a simple taunt, it is a taunt that causes Mary to hold a grudge against Peter, ultimately becoming one of the film’s major plot points.
Shortly after meeting Peter, we meet Peter’s cats, Tib and Gib. Mary follows the pair in to a nearby forest where she discovers the Fly-by-Night, a glowing blue flower she discovers blooms only once every seven years. Despite hissing and howling from Tib and Gib, Mary picks a part of the flower to take home.
That night, a storm sets in, becoming a mist in the morning. Mary is warned not to go in to the forest that day, but it is a warning she quickly ignores as she storms off in anger as a result of Peter taunting her again.
Mary quickly makes another discovery in the woods: a broomstick. Mary originally thinks it is the perfect broomstick to help out with, but her plans change as she squashes a part of the Fly-by-Night flower, causing the broomstick to wildly spring to life, taking Mary with it as she struggles to hold on in a scene one might argue is a nod to Kiki’s Delivery Service.
The broom takes Mary to Endor College, a building whose exterior appears to be made primarily of woodwind instruments. Mary, having never ridden a broom before, crash lands at the broom stables, where she is yelled at by Flanagan, arguably the comic relief of Mary and the Witch’s Flower. The character design for Flanagan was inspired by the landlord of the Studio Ponoc building – as for how much, that was not included in the opening trivia at the premiere event.
Flanagan leads Mary up to the college entrance via a set of stairs reminiscent of Spirited Away. The college’s courtyard looks straight out of Howl’s room from Howl’s Moving Castle, full of colorful strange objects.
As Mary is led around the college by Headmistress Mumblechook, the power of the Fly-by-Night soon becomes apparent. Mary isn’t just praised as a potential prodigy, she proves she is a prodigy.
However, she is a prodigy whose power quickly lands her in trouble when she accidentally finds a book of spells in Mumblechook’s office hidden behind a painting of the Fly-by-Night. Endor College turns from a place of magic to one of danger as Mumblechook interrogates Mary about the Fly-by-Night. Still angry at Peter, she tells Mumblechook Peter knows where the flower is.
Mary leaves Endor College to return home, but not for long. Endor College was no dream, and Mary’s grudge against Peter results in his kidnapping. She is now faced with a difficult decision: does she return to the dangerous world of magic, or does she abandon Peter knowing she is responsible for whatever happens?
As you probably guessed, Mary returns to Endor College to rescue Peter, but instead becomes captive herself. While this may seem like normal normal plot development, it again becomes one of the more important scenes in the film. Mary recalls the book of spells contains a spell to undo all magic. She casts the spell, enabling Peter and herself to escape from the room they were imprisoned in.
Unfortunately for Peter, it is an escape that is short lived. Peter becomes captured again while Mary makes her escape. Her escape, however, isn’t to the home she was expected. She instead lands at a small house on a mysterious island. While Mary may not recognize the house, the magical house seems to recognize her, inviting Mary inside.
Inside, Mary finds photos of a much earlier Endor College and a book of transformation experiments. Through a magic mirror, it is revealed the home belongs to her Great-Aunt Charlotte, a former witch and prodigy at Endor College. Charlotte gives Mary the last of the Fly-by-Night flowers, enabling Mary to return to Endor College again.
Thankfully, it becomes Mary's last return to Endor College, putting a stop to a plot at risk of becoming like a horrible errand quest in an RPG: get an item, run off somewhere to get another item, only to return to the start point several more times.
This time, Mary returns to a dark, hostile, and industrious Endor College. Peter is being held – again – in a tree being quickly converted in to a lab. It is here Mary makes the most important decision in the film, one almost anti-Ghibli. Mary makes the decision to reject magic while still aiding Peter in escaping. Peter uses the book of spells to cast the spell to undo all magic, and the film ends with Peter and Mary flying away from Endor College one last time.
Warning: Spoilers above.
Overall, Mary and the Witch's Flower is a very good start for Studio Ponoc. While I would say homages to your alma mater out of respect are appropriate, there are some scenes in Mary that feel ripped straight from a Studio Ghibli movie. Mary's soundtrack is brilliant, enough so I purchased the soundtrack on iTunes shortly after watching the film. I was very happy to see both the subtitled and dubbed showings sell out at my local theater, however I did observe much more laughter in the subbed showing rather than the dubbed.
That might be due to Mary's dub feeling… lacking for a GKIDS release. I thought the dubs for Marnie and Kaguya were excellent – as good as the Japanese audio. For Mary, not so much. Now, to be fair, that may be because GKIDS didn't exactly do the dub. The dub was done by Altitude, a UK distributor. I think it's perfectly fair and makes better sense to have a UK-based company dub a film set in the UK, but there were scenes the audio so poorly matched the mouth flaps it was distracting, and some lines felt forced, especially Mary's. Not a good thing to have happen with the main character of a film.
Mary and the Witch's Flower is nonetheless a film you should go see while it is still available in theaters. I do however – and I hate to say it – struggle to recommend the dub. Mary and the Witch's Flower receives an 8 out of 10.
All images © Studio Ponoc. Images provided by GKIDS.