Attention: This review contains analysis and therefore spoilers.
Is Ghibli magic? Those two word arrive together more often than not and the pairing is rarely disputed. Is magic replicable? Mary and the Witch’s Flower, the new release from Studio Ponoc seeks to expand the magic beyond the walls of the venerable studio. Unfortunately, while the beauty of the imagery, and its close approximation to Ghibli’s style, cannot be denied, it takes more than beauty to make magic.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower feels born from a desperate pitch meeting. “Harry Potter meets Kiki’s Delivery Service,” you can hear the salesmen saying. High Concept pitches aren’t always garbage, especially when they combine disparate visions into unexpected juxtapositions. However, when they are used to combine two audience groupings in order to guarantee delivery of that audience the trouble begins.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower is set in England. There is nothing weirder than seeing a Ghibli-esque character enjoying an English meal. It’s not natural. Everyone’s voice is accented (at least in the English dub) and there absolutely is a Hogwart’s, here called Endor College. The scenes at Endor College are the best the film has to offer. It’s odd to see a movie so desperate for an audience distance itself from it’s most intriguing setting. We spend more time around Mary’s Great Aunt’s cottage than we do in the magical wizard school. Not that it isn’t beautifully drawn, but there isn’t much happening there. Narratively this is justified by the circumstance that most damns the story. Mary doesn’t want to learn magic!
Chihiro, in Spirited Away, isn’t thrilled by the magic she encounters, but she’s at least excited to be having an adventure. Mary, on the other hand, desires most to get it over with, and the audience can’t help but feel the same. Mary doesn’t make any friends at Endor. A Hagrid-esque groundskeeper befriends her for no real reason. The two professors are interested in her powers, but she never even speaks to another student, a missed opportunity. Mary is simply pulled through the plot by chance. When she returns home after her first encounter with the magic school, she laughs (laughs!?) at the idea that they might expect her to enroll. At the end of the film, when she’s blown up half the school, she happily throws away a magic flower declaring that she’ll never need magic again.
Are Ghibli films magic? When they address the desire of children to experience a world beyond the one they know (in other words, the core experience of childhood). Is the magic replicable? Not when you believe that the best thing a child can want is to live with her Great Aunt until her inevitable death with no adventures and a complacent attitude.
Bonus Ghibli Comparison Chart
- Optimistic young female protagonist with powers – almost every Ghibli movie, so let’s say Kiki’s Delivery Service.
- A silent cat which opens the door to adventure – Whisper of the Heart.
- An inanimate object that acts alive – Howl’s Moving Castle.
- An effeminately handsome young boy – Howl’s Moving Castle.
- A floating castle – Castle in the Sky.
- A half-mechanical man – Spirited Away.
- Animals revolt against mistreatment by humans – Princess Mononoke.
- And more … what am I missing comment below.
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