“Mary and the Witch’s Flower” is something of a miracle. Regardless of its merits as a movie, the fact that it even exists in such a dire time for animated cinema is something worth celebrating. It was only a few years ago, in August 2014, when the peerless Studio Ghibli announced it was re-evaluating its future in the wake of financial hardships and Hayao Miyazaki’s supposed retirement — the move seemed to confirm the collective fear that the world’s most consistently brilliant film studio was lost without the visionary storyteller responsible for so much of its immortal output.
Back then, the news felt like a potentially fatal blow for hand-drawn animation, the final surrender of a cold war that had started with friendly fire (Pixar) and ended with outright humiliation (“The Emoji Movie”). But all was not lost.
Studio Ghibli soon flickered back to life, co-producing Michaël Dudok de Wit’s “The Red Turtle” in 2016. Miyazaki, restless as ever, committed himself to another feature. And now, perhaps most promising of all, several of the legendary filmmaker’s most talented disciples have formed their own out company and begun to make their own movies in the Ghibli tradition.
The debut offering from the newly minted Studio Ponoc (a name derived from the Serbo-Croation word for “midnight,” and meant to signal the dawn of a new day), “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” may not be a great film — it occasionally struggles just to be a good one — but it’s a convincing proof-of-concept, and that might be more important in the long run.
Directed by Ghibli alum Hiromasa Yonebayashi (“When Marnie Was There”), Studio Ponoc’s first effort feels like a high-end knockoff that’s been made with the best of intentions. It has the taste and texture of a vegan hot dog, and ultimately the same effect — a lie that satisfies those who can’t shake their craving for the truth. The illusion is most complete during the beautiful opening sequence, which captures the vitality and rare sense of adventure that rushes through Miyazaki classics like “The Castle in the Sky.” A young girl with hair like a forest fire makes a daring escape from a floating palace of some kind, dodging blobby demons and zipping into the moonlight on a magic broom.
Packed with more detail and wonder than the last 10 years of Pixar movies combined, this scene is so refreshingly artful and alive that it almost doesn’t matter that it’s all been done before. If anything, the crux of its charm lies in the joy of bearing witness to something that might never have been done again.
Still, there’s a thin line between homage and theft, and Yonebayashi doesn’t seem to care where it is. Adapted from Mary Stewart’s 1971 children’s book “The Little Broomstick” (Yonebayashi has a thing for bucolic British lit) and borrowing liberally from Ghibli’s signature iconography, “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” is less of a new creation than it does a Miyazaki Mad-Lib.
Following that electric prologue, the story begins in earnest with a gingery pre-teen named Mary (endearingly voiced in the English-language version by “The BFG” star Ruby Barnhill), who moves into her Great-Aunt Charlotte’s country home for reasons that are never adequately explained. She’s not an orphan or anything, her parents are just… on their way? Mary is a vintage Miyazaki heroine, pint-sized and petulant and recklessly bored. As someone observes about her: “You’re meant to look twice before you leap — she hardly looks at all.” “That’s what I love most about her,” Great-Aunt Charlotte replies.
Mary, however, doesn’t seem to love anything about herself. Her biggest hangup is that she feels lousy at everything and totally useless. We’re left to take her at her word. But things soon begin to look up for this klutzy kid once she stumbles upon a mysterious blue flower that grants her magical powers for 12 hours, and the broomstick she needs to clean the house suddenly whisks her away to a floating school of witchcraft and wizardry. This one may be called Endor College and not Hogwarts, but there’s truly nothing new under the sun, or hiding behind the moon. Stewart’s tale predates the “Harry Potter” saga by some time, but nevertheless proves too similar to exhume. That’s fine by Yonebayashi, who eagerly flattens the source material into a flimsy backdrop for some “Kiki’s Delivery Service” fan-fiction, along with a few loving nods to everything from “Spirited Away” to “Howl’s Moving Castle.” Anything to give those Ghibli fans their fix and let them know there’s a new dealer in town.
From there, “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” quickly becomes one of those children’s movies where a kid enters a magical new world and repeats every marvel they encounter in the form of a question. “Welcome to Endor College,” says the school’s severe headmistress (Kate Winslet). “Endor College?” Mary parrots. “That cat is a familiar” says the humanoid beaver creature who greets our heroine at the gates with a thick Scottish brogue. “A familiar?” Mary asks. “We’re obviously evil eugenicists with ulterior motives” says the pint-sized chemistry teacher (Jim Broadbent, voicing a character who looks like a “Topsy-Turvy” version of Dr. Robotnik). “Ulterior motives?” Mary echoes.
Okay, that last example isn’t real, but it might as well be. Besides, there’s no other credible explanation for why Mary develops such a quick distaste for this sky-high fantasy world. Endor is curiously empty (Mary never really meets another student), but it’s greener and less gothic than Hogwarts, punctuated with shimmering minarets that are appear to be teeming with life during our brief glimpses inside. It’s FAO Schwarz on an impossibly grand scale, and we don’t get a clear sense of why she might not want to be there. It’s not just that she senses something amiss; she’s completely disinterested. Being told that she’s a once-in-a-century witch barely seems to move the needle. If anything, it only strengthens Mary’s self-doubt, as she knows that her powers were borrowed from a flower, and not found her blood. If the film is arguing that children would be wise to appreciate the magic they can find in the real world, it fails to make a compelling case.
The chintzier the storytelling becomes, the cheaper the animation begins to seem. Are the villains so one-dimensional and underwritten because they look like they’ve been plucked from the doodles in Miyazaki’s wastebasket, or do they look like secondhand character designs because they’re so one-dimensional and underwritten? It’s both hard to tell and ultimately irrelevant, but other flaws are easier to see for yourself. The colors are garish, the Ghibli touches call attention to themselves, and the action is so confined to a few simple locations that Endor eventually comes to resemble an abandoned playground, a spectacular palace of unrealized potential. This isn’t an ugly film by any stretch, but there’s a bootlegged vibe to it, and even the best moments feel like they’ve been photocopied from a true original.
And yet, there’s something indivisibly pure about the fact that Yonebayashi and his team have refused to let something beautiful die just because the rest of the world were willing to lower their standards. It’s thrilling that Studio Ponoc even exists, and that they’ve come so close to cloning the movies we once feared that people would no longer make.
With “Mary and the Witch’s Flower,” they’ve come both too close and not close enough, resulting in an adventure that can never climb out of the uncanny valley it digs for itself. If Ponoc truly hopes to make films in the spirit of Studio Ghibli, they’ll eventually have to embrace the fact that Studio Ghibli made films that nobody else could, would, or already had. That will prove to be a tall order, but this new outfit might just have the moxie to pull it off. You’re meant to look twice before you leap, but “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” suggests that Ponoc hardly looks at all. For now, that’s what you’ll love most about them.
“Mary and the Witch’s Flower” opens in theaters on Friday, January 19.