An accidental witch flying on a broomstick; sweeping landscapes above the clouds; intricate clockwork powering magical structures; characters consumed by Dr. Frankenstein-like hubris. Oh, and two cats — one of them sporting a constant sneer.
These are the ingredients of Mary and the Witch's Flower, the debut feature-length anime from Studio Ponoc, founded by Studio Ghibli veteran producer Yoshiaki Nishimura. The film is directed by Ghibli veteran Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret World of Arrietty, When Marnie Was There). Keeping with the Ghibli veteran theme, Mary's background art is provided by Deho Gallery, which rendered the kind of hand-painted backgrounds Studio Ghibli was once praised for but in a more fairytale-like style, especially through the use of rainbow and iridescent hues.
Mary and the Witch's Flower sees a clumsy girl named Mary Smith confined to the countryside at her great-aunt's home while her parents are away "for business." Mary hates her untamable red hair, for which she is mocked as a "red-haired monkey" by a villager named Peter. During an aimless summer stroll, Mary and her two cats stumble upon a broomstick and a flower. She finds that the flower's nectar, when extracted from a single bud, grants her temporary magical powers. Using these powers, Mary is able to fly the broomstick to Endor College for witches and warlocks.
Thanks to the flower, Mary involuntarily fools the school's faculty — a portly headmistress and a scheming scientist — into thinking she's an incredibly powerful witch-in-training. Suffice to say that her lies have consequences and that Endor houses things that are far more sinister than a few simple charms and potions. Mary has to do some soul-searching in order to undo the mess she's caused.
On a superficial visual and narrative level, it would be easy to dismiss Mary and the Witch's Flower as a Hayao Miyazaki-lite pastiche; the protagonist, one might argue, traces the steps of Miyazaki's teen witch Kiki (Kiki's Delivery Service); her appearance is comparable to what a pre-teen Ponyo (Ponyo) would look like; and Mary's foil, Peter, with his tousled blond mane, is somewhat of a pared-down version of Howl, the moving-castle-dwelling wizard from Howl's Moving Castle. The fabled Endor College, where Mary ventures after accidentally unleashing the power of the fly-by-night flower, sits on a remote mountaintop (or is it a floating island?) where nature coexists with what looks like a fortified, steampunk St. Basil's Cathedral — we saw a similar environment in Castle in the Sky, though in that case nature had taken over after mankind abandoned the settlement.
Despite the similarities, I see Yonebayashi's references to Ghibli's works as personalized — and indirect — tributes rather than textbook-like carbon copies. And their presence, frankly, is something we should have expected; after spending almost 20 years at Studio Ghibli, some tropes and styles must have become ingrained into Yonebayashi's creative process.
I see, on Studio Ponoc's part, a take on previous Ghibli themes that have been morphed into something distinctively new. And even though the straightforward and simple plot makes Mary especially appealing to younger audiences, the visuals and possible interpretations of tropes can satisfy even the most anime-educated viewers.
Let's look at Mary. Unlike Princess Nausicaa (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind), Sheeta (Castle in the Sky), Kiki (Kiki's Delivery Service), and even Ponyo (Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea), Mary does not possess any innate magical powers, nor is she a natural-born (albeit accidental) leader. What's more, unlike Chihiro (Spirited Away) and Sophie (Howl's Moving Castle), Mary lacks a can-do attitude. When we get to know her, she is a clumsy, melancholic tween who bemoans the fact that she is not good at anything. It's only by sheer chance that Mary is granted temporary magical powers. Her arc has her assert herself through her sheer cojones — no magic aid at her disposal.
Endor College, which might be reminiscent of J.K. Rowling's Hogwarts were it not for the fact that Mary's source material, Mary Stewart's The Little Broomstick, dates back to 1971, is its own carousel of wonders. The courtyard boasts diverse constructions that blend Art Deco, steampunk, and medieval elements, while the headmistress has sacred-heart-shaped traveling headquarters filled to the brim with glistening artifacts of all kinds.
What's more, Mary seems to contain a plethora of references to the history of animation, regardless of its provenance. The diminutive, hydrocephalic Dr. Dee, for instance, bears some resemblance to Dr. Finkelstein in The Nightmare Before Christmas, and his so-called "failed" experiments — such as mammals and reptilians growing mushrooms or flowers on different body parts — look like extraordinarily refined Pokémon characters.
In all, my impression of Mary and the Witch's Flower was that director Hiromasa Yonebayashi seems to declare: We acknowledge what came before us, and yet we have the ability to come into our own.