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How ‘Mary and the Witch’s Flower’ Builds on Studio Ghibli DNA

After "The Breadwinner," the debut animated feature from Studio Ponoc offers GKids' best prospect for a second Oscar nomination.

“Mary and the Witch’s Flower”

Animation

With its debut feature, “Mary and the Witch’s Flower,” Studio Ponoc in Japan offered a new kind of anime fantasy drawn from the DNA of Studio Ghibli. And for founder and former Ghibli producer Yoshiaki Nishimura (“The Tale of The Princess Kaguya,” “When Marnie Was There”) and director Hiromasa Yonebayashi (“The Secret World of Arrietty, “When Marnie Was There”), the experience of making it was a new adventure.

“‘When Marnie Was There’ was a very quiet film about a little girl set in a small village without much action,” said Nishimura. “I wanted a story with a very active, energetic girl with lots of emotion and dynamic action.” And in speaking of his director, who drew dynamic animation for Hayao Miyazaki, “I saw that as a very large weapon to be able to feature in a new film.”

Starting From Scratch

Based on Mary Stewart’s novel, “The Little Broomstick,” the film concerns a bored little English girl who’s transformed into a witch with the discovery of a magical flower. Her destiny, it turns out, is to free caged, tormented animals that are part of a misguided experiment at a mysterious wizarding school. However, after Mary loses her bewitching powers, she’s forced to reinvent herself.

On their own and without the resources and budget of Ghibli films, Nishimura and Yonebayashi were forced to reinvent themselves as well. Still, with a talented group of 450 artists (many from Ghibli), hand-drawn ingenuity, and the use of open source animation software for fantasy sequences, they achieved a visually compelling movie that honors the Ghibli tradition.

“Mary and the Witch’s Flower”

“The original story had a very careful and reverent depiction of nature,” said Yonebayashi. “And so I wanted to make sure I show that. And for the fantasy sequences, it was an imaginary world. But in order to get those aspects in, even with our low budget, we went to Britain to look at actual natural scenes there to reference. I wanted to have a real contrast between the real world of the Red Manor and our college, which had its own [mechanical] garden but has all these strange creatures in there as well.”

Additionally, a great deal of effort went into the design and animation of 30 creatures that are transformed into monsters. But there were important aesthetic decisions to consider beyond the cool factor. “It was difficult to figure out how much to keep them animal-like and how much to make them creature,” Yonebayashi said. “If they became too creature-like in their transformed state, then the audience might start sympathizing with them. And so we had to keep that line so that when they transformed back into their animal reality, we welcomed them.”

Change and Transformation

However, the director’s favorite character was the broomstick. “At first it’s sort of an untamed horse that does whatever it wants,” he said. “And then gradually it becomes more of a partner for Mary to be able to work with her. So that change and transformation was fun.”

Meanwhile, it required a large number of background drawings to get the motion of Mary’s flying to look believable (assisted by some digital clouds). But the hardest animation of all was a crowd scene with several hundred animals. “For just a few seconds of film, the animators took two months to draw those scenes,” said Yonebayashi.

“Mary and the Witch’s Flower”

For the filmmakers, though, the movie offers a hopeful message of change that’s intended to be empowering for kids and adults alike. And as they embark on a series of shorts before producing their second feature, it’s a promising start for Studio Ponoc.

GKids and Fathom Events will premiere “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” theatrically on January 18 in both its Japanese-language version and English dub (starring Ruby Barnhill, Kate Winslet, and Jim Broadbent). This will be followed by a wider North American release starting January 19.

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