Recently, it’s felt almost like our duty to live in a world devoid of magic. When everything’s falling apart, there’s this pressure to “live in the real world” — to replace all wonder and hope with horror and pragmatism.
Unless you’re watching Mary and the Witch’s Flower, which blurs the lines between fantasy and realism, turning the everyday into an enchantment in and of itself. And luckily, it premieres in the US this weekend, with a voice talent featuring the likes of Kate Winslet and Jim Broadbent.
When animation legend Studio Ghibli appeared to be shutting down in 2015, it felt like our world lost a whole lot of magic. Studio Ghibli feature films just weren’t financially viable anymore. There was no longer a place for those awe-inspiring, imaginative, heartfelt, and painstakingly hand-drawn worlds that defined so many of our childhoods.
Then a top Ghibli veteran, Hiromasa Yonebayash, founded his own company, with Studio Ponoc promising to keep the spirit of Ghibli’s films alive. The bar was set impossibly high. Yet somehow, their debut feature doesn’t just continue the decades-long legacy of its forebears. It invites audiences to find magic in facing harsh realities during a time when the message is sorely need.
Continuing Yonebayash’s fascination with British fantasy novels (which inspired Ghibli’s last feature he directed, When Marnie Was There), Mary and the Witch’s Flower is an adaptation of Mary Stewart’s The Little Broomstick. A fiery-headed wildchild named Mary ventures into the woods, finds a flower that bring her to the magical school of Endor College, and discovers that she’s actually a very gifted witch.
You think you know where this is going, but you’re wrong. Unlike many Ghibli films, there’s an inauthentic kitschiness to the magical realm of Mary and the Witch’s Flower. But every scene in the real world casts a spell imbuing the ordinary with endless charm and intrigue.
With a fantasy setting like Endor College, you might imagine that the film would continue Ghibli’s tradition for creating the most iconic magical creature companions ala Howl’s Moving Castle and My Neighbor Totoro. Instead, it’s the average, regular old animals who steal the show, be they a sassy as hell Grumpy Cat look-alike, or a devilishly helpful monkey. And don’t even get me started on Confucius the dog.
From the beginning, the prestigious magical school, headed by the gaudy Madam Mumblechook and the deranged Doctor Dee, reeks with a veneer of opulence and pretension. The school’s towers are capped with garish bright colors that bring St. Basil’s Cathedral to mind. The magic classes look less like Hogwarts, and more like the dystopian sci-fi of Ender’s Game. Everything dubbed a “magical” invention crackles with the unsettlingly soullessness of a machine. It’s a far cry from even the lively malevolence of the magical realm in Spirited Away.
In contrast, the lush and natural tones of the real world give viewers the warm sensation of coming home. Studio Ghibli’s often question the notion of magic as a positive force. But none of their films luxuriate in realism or the everyday marvel of the love between friends like Mary does.
In fact, arguably the most impressive shot of the whole film is a closeup of just some random blades of grass. The image is so detailed and realistic that — for a split second — you wonder if the film has inexplicably switched to live action.
Usually, Ghibli is known for its jaw-dropping, sweeping landscape shots, flexing their renowned animation muscles by showing off its capacity to illustrate scale and scope without losing the intimacy of hand-drawn artwork.
But if Mary and the Witch’s Flower is anything to go by, Studio Ponoc shows a pension for zooming in instead of out. A clever workaround for the studio’s fewer resources, it allows them to continue the legacy of Ghibli, while carving out its own unique focus on the smaller wonders we may take for granted every day.
You walk away from the film with the the message that no one should sit around and wait for magic to save the world. But that doesn’t mean the magic is gone. It just means that you can find it all around you if you look close enough.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower is in select theaters now.