Mary and The Witch’s Flower is a must-see film for all ages. The anime work was released stateside on January 18th, and is the first feature-length release from Studio Ponoc, who have now proven themselves worthy of helming family friendly stories in a post-Studio Ghibli era.
The film follows the adventures of Mary Smith after she encounters the mysterious Fly-by-Night flower and is whisked off to a magic school in the sky. This sounds like a theme we’ve seen in children’s stories time and time again, but I was impressed with the unique approach to magic taken here. That aspect, in addition to the well-developed characters and gratifying visuals, made the movie invigorating.
****SOME PLOT SPOILERS BELOW****
The movie is set in present-day England and the magic school is located in a fantastical place in the clouds atop floating islands. What I liked about the animators’ interpretation of this place is that it’s not your classic fantasy world. The campus of the school has a combination of fairy tale, industrial and modern aesthetics. Even inside of the school it’s full of machines, apparatus, and robot-like creatures which gives it a more scientific/technological atmosphere than a magical one.
There’s a scene where Mary first enters the school and sees elevator-like machines transporting students throughout the building. She asks the headmistress Madam Mumblechook to explain what’s powering these devices, and is told that it’s electricity, and that electricity is a type of magic in and of itself. I found that fascinating because, commonly in storytelling, magic and science are unable to cross over, while this film has no problem mixing the two. In a later scene, Madam Mumblechook and Doctor Dee (one of the head teachers of the magic school) are even referred to as “scientists” before being called “witches” or “wizards.” The perception you get from this world is that magic is within reach, and that it’s possible for anyone to obtain it, hence, everyone has the opportunity to become special.
It’s common for children’s films about witches to have a protagonist who’s infatuated with magic. But this is not the case with Mary who, while amazed by the enchanting world she has entered and the beautiful new creatures and things she’s seeing for the first time, doesn’t lose hold of who she is and where she comes from.
Mary accidentally finds herself in this predicament after following a cat named Tib. The night before she arrives at the school, the Fly-by-Night flower blooms and Tib’s “girlfriend” cat, Gib, goes missing during the commotion. Mary therefore makes up her mind that she will find the cat, which is her intent when Tib leads her into the forest. Instead, Tib brings her to a magical broomstick which involuntarily takes her to the magic school after being charged by the Fly-by-Night flower. Upon arrival, Madam Mumblechook confronts her, impressed by Mary’s superb skills in magic, something she mistakes for Mary’s own power rather than the flower’s. She urges Mary to enroll, and while Mary is flattered, she regains her composure by the end of the visit. On returning home, she mocks the school and vows never to go back.
It was refreshing to see that. It’s so often that fantasy movies put the significance on the magic or supernatural ability but, with Mary and the Witch’s Flower, the significance is placed on Mary herself and what she can do without outside help. Mary doesn’t feel she needs to be validated through magic, which is an excellent lesson for kids who watch this film.
Unfortunately, Madam Mumblechook and Doctor Dee turn out to be antagonists. They have been performing cruel transformation experiments on animals with the intent of eventually doing the same to humans. This is where Gib comes in, as she was abducted to be used as a guinea pig for the experiment. Madam Mumblechook finds out Mary has the flower and forces her to give it up in exchange for her friend, Peter, who they have kidnapped. In order to save Peter and Gib, Mary has to use the power of the flower (whether she likes it or not), but she doesn’t rely on it to the point where she loses sight of her own worth.
Depicting Mary’s strong will was well done, but even better was her overall character arc. Yes, she’s a strong, outgoing character, but she does have faults, including a complex about having red hair and the feeling that she isn’t capable of doing things correctly. She discovers that red hair witches are some of the most powerful, and that her Great Aunt Charlotte also had red hair—this gives her confidence. Additionally, she manages to save Gib and Peter, and stops Madam Mumblechook and Doctor Dee from being able to perform any further unethical experiments, therefore realizing she is capable of making things right.
The other characters were also well developed. I like how Great Aunt Charlotte was made a practical character. She was a former student of the magic school, so nothing comes as a surprise to her. The opening sequence of the film show’s a red headed witch—who is almost identical to Mary—on a broom, fleeing bird-like creatures chasing after her. Later in the film, we learn that this was Mary’s Great Aunt Charlotte who had originally stolen the Fly-by-Night flower seeds from the school.
Many times, adults in kid movies appear aloof and are clueless about the things the protagonist is dealing with, so having Great Aunt Charlotte in the know makes this film more intriguing. Great Aunt Charlotte is a witch and had been in similar situations, and her main concern is the sensible goal of getting her niece back home, safe and sound. She’s not even phased that Mary has found out her “secret” about magic; she treats magic as merely something from her past which she has willingly left behind.
The way the villains were portrayed was also interesting. Instead of simply making them evil, the villains are just people who happen to have made bad decisions. Both Madam Mumblechook and Doctor Dee honestly feel that their methods are right. They are not purposefully trying to cause anyone harm, but they are blinded by their goal. The director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, explained in a Q&A that he wanted kids to have a more realistic interpretation of the world, and didn’t want to teach them that people are inherently evil. Therefore, you get these great three-dimensional villains, where we see that they have both good and bad sides to them.
I highly recommend that everyone watches this with their family or even by themselves. It’s a great film for children to see and learn from. It’s uplifting, fun, visually pleasing, and will keep your attention. But even for adults, it’s worth watching for the interesting direction the filmmakers take with this classic adaptation.
Written by Dy
Dy is an aspiring filmmaker with a B.S. in Video- Film. Her hobbies include binging anime, reading comic books and watching TV and movies. Follow her on twitter @dyprinzess.
Writer’s note: I am speaking on behalf of myself and my views do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else.
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