Last week I caught a preview screening for the debut feature from Ghibli heir Studio Ponoc at the fantastic Cinema City Picturehouse cinema in Norwich, UK. I had consciously avoided any review of this film, apart from chancing upon a somewhat disappointing missive a few weeks before.
The cinema was packed to the rafters with cinephiles, and it was a rare pleasure to witness flawless etiquette amongst the audience (which spanned all ages). The only test for the latter was a slightly overlong, nevertheless interesting, behind-the-scenes documentary which preceded the film itself, explaining the birth of Studio Ponoc. Founder Yoshiaki Nishimura was brutally honest in his statement that the creation of a new studio was deemed necessary for several Ghibli staffers after Hayao Miyazaki’s announcement that he would not be making any more feature films. “We have young families” stated Nishimura in his explanation of the rationale behind the new studio.
Studio Ponoc was founded in April 2015, and Nishimura brought several other Ghibli members of a similar age to himself, with the goal being the birth of a new Japanese animation dynasty. Indeed, Ponoc is a Serbo-Croatian word which means midnight or the beginning of a new day. The pedigree of Ponoc’s crew is not in doubt — its lead director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, has already been a key animator of Spirited Away and Ponyo, before taking the reins completely for The Secret World of Arrietty and When Marnie Was There. Other animators have had roles in a number of Studio Ghibli’s masterpieces over the years.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower is the debut feature for the studio, and is scheduled for a UK-wide release on the 4th May 2018. It is based on “The Little Broomstick”, a children’s novel written by Mary Stewart in 1971. The version I saw was in Japanese, with English subtitles. The dubbed version features some stellar voice cast including the likes of Jim Broadbent and Kate Winslet. However, my personal experience is that there is always some magic lost in the dubbed versions of japanese animated films.
Film Synopsis (No Spoilers apart from those already in the Trailer)
The film starts with a bang, with a chaotic battle scene which only reveals its significance towards the end of the film. We meet Mary, a well fleshed-out young red-haired girl who does not like her hair and is inquisitive about the world. She gets annoyed easily, particularly at her own quirks, but she is caring and empathetic in her interactions with others. As a lead character, she is excellent and deserves to be the early symbol for Studio Ponoc in the same way that Totoro has been for Studio Ghibli. Indeed, our empathy for her transcends some of the finest Ghibli protagonists: Kiki, San, perhaps even Spirited Away’s Chihiro.
Mary’s world is upended following a visit into the woods, which is clearly inspired by the studio’s heritage, and the rest of the story has a magical theme (as implicated by the title) with segments which do resemble Ghibli’s classic Kiki’s Delivery Service. Mary meets a Headmistress who appears inspired by Zeniba from Spirited Away, enters a world of the arcane arts and encounters a perilous situation which threatens all that she loves. The plot is somewhat formulaic and, perhaps, lacks the flights of whimsy and depth from Ghibli’s finest works which could elevate it to a true masterpiece. However, the formula is, like a perfect witch’s potion, brewed perfectly and did not feel derivative.
The film is mainly set in Rural England, and the behind-the-scenes featurette described how the animators travelled to England and made sketches of the countryside. Their meticulous research has paid dividends in some breathtaking English scenery, from forests filled with mist to verdant countryside. Later scenes have a psychedelic appearance which seem inspired by The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, and have so much detail that it is impossible to appreciate them in just one viewing. To put it simply, the beauty of this film rivals anything that Studio Ghibli has done.
BBFC Age Rating
The film is rated “U” for very mild threat. Whilst I agree that the feature warrants a U rating for children to have the optimum chance to be bewitched by this film, it does actually have some intense moments, including emotive scenes involving animals.
The spirit of Ghibli permeates this film, and a tight plot is complemented by stunning visuals which rival any of the works of the studio’s progenitor. Despite a fantastical narrative, the magical whimsy of Ghibli’s finest works doesn’t quite make it over to Ponoc’s debut to forge a true masterpiece. However it is an immensely strong debut feature which Ghibliholics, fantasy fans and many more will wolf down faster than Spirited Away’s No-Face.
This kind of film needs to be championed, as a world without the beauty of Miyazaki’s legacy, would be a dark world indeed.