Film & TV

WoW Festival Review: Mary and the Witch’s Flower

The Wales One World festival celebrates eclectic worldwide cinema and has been since 2001. This rich selection of film, adventures across Welsh cinemas every March and aims to bring people together in the reflection of the wonders of moving pictures from around the world. WoW films prioritise the echoing of the ways of our world and the ways in which we ultimately live in – stories that illuminate the dilemmas people face, their choices and the end result. Keep an eye out for WoW screenings outside of March too!

Mary and The Witch’s Flower is a Japanese Animated Movie and the debut feature of Animation Studio Ponoc, produced by Yoshiaki Nishimura and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, both former employees of the highly acclaimed Studio Ghibli.

The most obvious aspect of the movie is how much it wears it’s Ghibli Influence on its sleeve. The style of the animation is very clearly trying to replicate classic Ghibli productions like Kiki’s Delivery Service and Castle in The Sky as well as other fantasy series, most notably Harry Potter, with concepts like a magical school a child protagonist and environmental themes. For those that are familiar with Ghibli’s past filmography the film’s similarities may come as redundant however while it may not be ground-breaking, Mary and The Witch’s Flower is still a well-executed, charming adventure that’s worth a watch if you’re a fan of Ghibli, animation or fantasy in general

The movie follows Mary Smith (Ruby Barnhill), a young girl with red hair living with her Great Aunt in the English Countryside. While she’s sulking about her apparent lack of talent and boredom, she ends up discovering a strange flower in the forest that allows her to use magic. This eventually leading her to Endor College, a secret school for witches. While she is initially hailed as prodigy, she eventually realises the Headmistress and her head scientist who run the college may have more sinister intentions for her and the flower.

The plot starts of a bit slow but picks up the pace as the plot begins to unfold. Visually the film is very strong, starting with the drab and washed out (yet still very well detailed) landscapes of the English country side to the vibrant colour palette of the Witch College. This is further emphasized with the animation itself, which managed to handle several fast-paced action scenes while still maintaining an expressive amount detail. The different characters and creatures while somewhat generic in terms of designs are well drawn and work well with the scenes that they’re in and it is exciting to see them in the eventual climax. The voice acting for the English dub was also very good, and the fact that they had actors with different regional British accents help adds to the authenticity of the setting.

Mary as a character is an enjoyable protagonist. For the most part she feels like an actual young girl with a lot of energy and curiosity to keep her very likable and easy to route for. I will say however, that she can come as a bit too over dramatic. She is shown to have self-esteem issues, believing herself to be talent-less and is bored of her life in the countryside. I actually thought these were good traits since as previously stated, they seem like actual insecurities that a young child would have, making her feel more realistic. This however gets a little too angst-y with her continuous monologues about how much she dislikes her red hair and how bad it makes her look. While I can see a young child being a bit self-conscious about something life that, the amount of times that Mary sulks about it makes it feel a little too contrived, especially as the other characters don’t really bring it up beyond a little teasing.

This leads to probably the biggest issue with the film. It has a bad habit, especially earlier in the film, of telling parts of the plot as opposed to showing it. This mainly comes in the form of Mary simply talking to herself, explaining what she is doing in certain parts of the plot. This doesn’t ruin the movie however it does feel very unnecessary and does take you out of the film to an extent. It’s especially a shame considering how good the visuals themselves are and could have been used to display the narrative more naturally.

With that being said, I really felt the character development of Mary was good and how it tied into the overall theme of the movie: change and transformation. An interesting concept that the film develops is the idea that magic and science are quite similar as opposed to other fantasy stories where the two are portrayed in conflict with one and other. This works as magic in the film is more or less an allegory for the dangers of scientific progress and specifically about unnaturally tampering with the natural world. This is explicitly seen when the Professor is shown experimenting on animals with magic, a clear allegory for scientific animal experimentation.

Environmentalism is a common theme in Ghibli films, so I was nice surprise to see a more different take on the topic. I also like that the film is far less black and white about the topic than the majority of Ghibli’s films. Even though they are ultimately in the wrong, the main two villains of the film are not shown to be truly evil. They genuinely believe that their actions will benefit the College and are more misguided than malevolent. The moral grey-ness is a welcomed addition and gives the film more depth and meaning to its topic.

This of course, ties back into Mary’s development. That despite the insecurities she has, she does not need to use magic to change herself in order to be talented or unique. By the end of the film it is her courage and determination that saves the day more than any actual spell. It’s a simple and well executed message that I feel is good for children to here.

Despite a few rough patches, Mary and The Witch’s Flower is an enchanting and well animated film that will please those looking for a good fantasy movie. It isn’t up to par with some of Ghibli’s masterpieces, however it is still a charming adventure with a well-developed protagonist and interesting themes. It bodes well for Studio Ponoc and I’ll be interested to see more from them in the future.

By Alexander Daud Briggs