Big Screen: Mary & The Witch’s Flower

January 23rd 2018

There was a hole left in the film industry after anime genius Miyazaki quit as Studio Ghibli’s director. Who will step in to fill the void, and can they continue the legacy of whimsical yet thoughtful storytelling?

The most obvious candidate is Hiromasa Yonebayashi. A former protégé of Miyazaki, he’s working with Studio Ponoc with the aim of keeping the spirit of Ghibli alive. The first film from the studio is ‘Mary and the Witch’s Flower’, a Harry Potter-esque story about a girl who is whisked off to a school of magic — only to discover that not everything is as it seems.

Mary’s power stems from a magical flower, granting her abilities that she doesn’t know how to control, and are doomed to fade after one night. As Mary explores the magical Endor College, she tries to keep that secret hidden from the school’s creepy Headmistress, who is out to steal the Witch’s Flower for herself.

In many ways, Mary’s situation is a fitting analogy for Yonebayashi’s new studio. Although gifted with enough talent to make magic on screen, without the direction of a master like Miyazaki the movie feels aimless and unsure of itself. Mary is literally able to solve every challenge she faces with the magic flower, so she never grows as a character and we never see what she’s truly capable of. The momentum of the film stalls, and you’re left yawning when you should be entranced.

At the same time, Yonebayashi never really figures out what the film is all about. Early on it seems like Mary is going to learn to overcome her self-consciousness, but as soon as we learn that she can do magic that becomes fairly irrelevant, and the film finishes as a mangled fable about the misuse of nuclear power. It’s an unsatisfying conclusion to what should be a magical ride.

‘Mary and the Witch’s Flower’ is a passable imitation, but lacks the life of earlier Ghibli films. They’ve gone for a Beatrix Potter-meets-Spirited Away vibe which attempts to capture the essence of both but achieves the charm of neither. What’s interesting is that although Yonebayashi’s movie is drawn almost exactly like those of his mentors, there is a drabness to the colours and a monotony to the backgrounds that don’t quite fit.

It makes you appreciate how hard it is to live up to a legacy. Unfortunately it seems like ‘Mary and the Witch’s Flower’ spends so much time trying to be like a classic Studio Ghibli film that it forgets what makes them masterpieces of the genre. Instead, we’re left with little more than a Saturday morning kids’ special.

 

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