Last night I had the chance to watch the new Studio Ponoc feature length animated film, Mary and the Witch's Flower in theaters and man was it good. Studio Ponoc, derived from the world famous Studio Ghibli known for it's animated movies such as Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, The Cat Returns, and more, is composed of many of the leading roles from Studio Ghibli once Studio Ghibli dissolved in 2014 after The Wind Rises finished production. Leading the project was Hiromasa Yonebayashi as the director and Yoshiaki Nishimura as the producer, both of them sharing a large passion for animated movies and carrying on the legacy that they had left behind with Ghibli.
The main audience for the story is one of all ages, it is entertaining and strokes the imagination for children while maintaining serious undertones and moral struggles for adults to pick up on. Mary and the Witches flower is a story about Mary Smith, a young girl who moved in with her great aunt in the outskirts of a rural town that she will be staying in before school starts. She finds herself to have a complex about her appearance, namely her unruly red hair and lacking self confidence as she seems to be unappreciated by the people around her. Due to this she roams alone in the fields and woods near her home to try to find a way to entertain herself for the week before school begins. A cat finds her in the grasslands and leads her to a beautiful flower in the middle of the woods which she proceeds to take home with her only to find out that it is an incredibly rare flower that has extreme magical properties.
The Witch's Flower
This flower brings her to a new world of a magical college, in which she learns the more dark and mysterious nature of the professor and headmistress who run the college and the reality of the flower she had just found. This adventure brings her to love herself more as well as the people around her, while undoing the wrongs that the flower had brought into the world.
Generally speaking, the story shares a very strong semblance to a monkey's paw motif. Nobody in the world is inherently evil, but just wishes to change something for the better of society. Unknowingly they become corrupted by the powers bestowed upon them and they see less of a moral reason as to why they were wrong.
In an interview that was played in the post credits scene, the director himself said that they wanted this movie to show a message to children and adults that the world is changing and the uncertainty of that can cause people to unknowingly hurt others in ways they cannot see. They used for example the nuclear reactor accidents in 2014 that had devastated Japan, as it is a technology that was meant to improve the lives of the Japanese, but inherently hurt them once something went wrong.
Overall, my opinion of the story is that it has good character development, as we see Mary mature her perspective on who she is and gain confidence to save the day, while still keeping a lighthearted tone to keep a wide audience entertained. The story is simple enough to keep kids entertained, and can keep adults in the world built around the story. Unfortunately, the story seems a little rushed at times though as the first half of the movie didn't really feel like it kept a good pace compared to the movies that Studio Ghibli had produced.
The art of this movie was spectacular, it employed a wide variety of colors in it's palette while actively keeping the tone of the movie in check. Character's designs were directly influenced by the personality and attitude of the characters, as this was one of the key goals that the art team had in mind. Characters like Mary had a wild and unruly personality, reflected in her hair but when engaged and excited in the world around her, the expressions she shows is amplified by the extremely defined features of her face (large mouth, thick eyebrows, etc.) I don't want to spoil too much of the other characters, but Peter who is a town boy who always wanted to be more of an adult and be more mature has a design that reflects this. As seen below, he is dressed more like an adult, and his hair is more refined than the children seen in the movie.
Mary and Peter
The landscapes shown in the movie are breathtaking as well, they're all hand drawn and pained all while preserving the natural look of the setting of the movie. In this case, the movie is set in an English town, so the artists from Ponoc had actually location scouted for their art to preserve an authentic English setting. This technique was inherited from their work at Ghibli, as most studios recreate photographs, rather than creating the land and feelings of the people that live in them which can only be achieved when physically scouting out the area. Below are some of the more impressive Key Frames from the movie.
All of the imagery used in the movie is incredibly breathtaking in my opinion. The amount of delicate work and dedication required to achieve this level of detail is astonishing. The art alone is one of, if not the best reason to go and see the movie while it is still in theaters as the DVD experience won't be the same quality.
The music for this movie is good, although not as wonderful and grandiose as the overture used in Howl's Moving Castle (a personal favorite,) Mary and the Witches' Flower had a weaker soundtrack. With other movies coming from the Ghibli-esque style, there was maybe one or two good songs from the movie that I can remember, but none that ring off the top of my head. You can find one of the main key songs below (one of the best ones), but to me the soundtrack was rather average for the Ghibli-esque style of movies.
Mary and the Witch's Flower captures the key essence of where Studio Ghibli left off, and will continue to carry on the torch that they left behind. Like most new studios, there is a little hiccup in performance when you debut your first work but Studio Ponoc still maintains the previous momentum, albiet a little slower from Studio Ghibli. It carries an entertaining story that has some pacing issues, and the music was rather average for the standard set previously, but I believe that the art really takes you away from that and into the world of Mary and the Witch's Flower. I would recommend this as a movie that everyone should see if they have the chance, but I still find favoritism going to the older works of Studio Ghibli. I hope to see Studio Ponoc's next feature film, and hope it blows this one away.
All music and images belong to Studio Ponoc, and are exclusively from the movie and it's soundtrack.