Mary and the Witch’s Flower Review

I’ve written in the past about my unrelenting love for Studio Ghibli and their timeless films, and I stand by my belief that they are the best animation company to have ever existed. And after director Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement in 2014, Studio Ghibli has since halted production of their wonderfully bizarre movies.

Enter Studio Ponoc, which was formed by several Studio Ghibli animators as well as the lead film producer for Ghibli, Yoshiaki Nishimura. Bearing the same signature animation as Ghibli, Studio Ponoc’s first feature film Mary and the Witch’s Flower looked to be a sure-fire hit. And in some ways the film was, with stunning animation, fun characters, and the clever blending themes and ideas from other Ghibli films.

The film focuses on a young, accident-prone girl named Mary, who finds a strange “Fly-by-Night” flower and a broomstick in the forest. Together the flower and broomstick turn Mary into a powerful witch, and send her to a school in the clouds called Endor college. A magical college for witches, the school is run by Madame Mumblechook and the intelligent Doctor Dee. However, after Mumblechook discovers Mary is in possession of the flower, she concocts a plot that may put Mary and her friends lives in serious danger.

Many qualities of the plot and characters pay homage to previous Studio Ghibli films, all without feeling like too much of a retread. Peter reminded me of Kanta from My Neighbor Totoro, and Madame Mumblechook was in some ways like Yubaba from Spirited Away. Even common themes depicted in Ghibli’s work appeared here, like man’s futile attempts to take control over nature. If I had to describe it, I’d say Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a blend of Howl’s Moving Castle, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and many other Ghibli products mixed into one, which I believe to be a clever first step for Studio Ponoc to make.

Good animation is pretty much an industry standard at this point, and anything below that now is shameful. Even with this, Studio Ponoc managed to impress me with its incredibly strong visuals. The watercolor landscapes and vibrantly drawn characters bring to life a world of pure two-dimensional joy. Films like this often leave me awestruck in the boundless amounts of visual creativity they produce. I’m always left wanting to see more of the world and its many inhabitants. And in the case of Mary and the Witch’s Flower, I unfortunately felt this longing to see more to an incredibly high degree, as the film was frequently void of visual wonders.

I really wish Mary and the Witch’s Flower would’ve taken the initiative to push more imaginative boundaries. This is a clever story, and the characters and animation are most certainly there. It’s just that all these elements aren’t utilized to their fullest potential. Studio Ponoc gift wrapped themselves a wonderful world of magic and adventure, yet refuse to open it. When we should be diving head first into the rich environment of Mary and the Witch’s Flower, we’re stuck focusing on too much characterization. Not that these are poorly written or bad characters, it’s just that we’ve already seen them been done before by Studio Ghibli, and already know how everything is going to turn out.

Even with its numerous flaws, I enjoyed Mary and the Witch’s Flower and would give it a strong, sincere recommendation. A lack of willingness to go the extra mile (as well as starting off fairly boring) put Mary and the Witch’s Flower below the quality of film I was really hoping to see. The only truly breathtaking part was the quality of animation, which was charming from start to finish.

I wish the very best of Studio Ponoc in the future, and believe that they have the capacity to achieve greatness through their animation.

The Verdict: B

-Zachary Flint


Life Review

Life stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, and Rebecca Ferguson as astronauts aboard the International Space Station, who recover a space probe returning from Mars. They discover that they found the first evidence of extraterrestrial life, an organism that gets nicknamed Calvin. Calvin begins growing at an alarming rate, eventually becoming strong enough to kill one of the crew members. It is now a fight for survival as the astronauts’ battle against a sophisticated being with no intent on letting them live.

I noticed very early on that Life was resembling many similar qualities as Gravity, as well as Ridley Scott’s Alien. Even the beginning title card was a callback to Alien. Since Alien is my favorite film, I was immediately skeptical of the direction this film was going in. My reservations ended up being unnecessary, as I was surprisingly fond of Life.

The alien (again, named Calvin) in Life was designed, in my opinion, pretty well. It looked kind of like a slimy starfish that could quickly move through space and easily kill any prey. In this day and age, it’s hard for filmmakers to create a completely original alien that sets it apart from every other movie alien. So with what the film was going for, I thought Calvin was a pretty satisfying (and creepy) alien.

The film attempts to use important dialogue on the meaning of life and our existence as a species, but it comes off as just pretentious and forced. As soon as the characters started talking in this sappy and overdramatic way, my eyes would about roll to the back of my head. Audiences have heard this exact dialogue a million times over, and Life isn’t doing anything new with it.

Despite the self-important dialogue, the characters were for the most part very likable. I wanted to see them survive, and I wanted to see them succeed in returning home. All the acting from every cast member (from Gyllenhaal to Hiroyuki Sanada) was pretty fantastic, and mighty convincing.

I also really liked the general tone and visual style to Life. The close quarters of the space craft gave me a sense of hopelessness and insecurity, like any of our main cast could be killed off at any second. The camera work seconded this, as it gave me a strong feeling of claustrophobia. Also noteworthy was the subtle use of lighting around the spaceship, oftentimes reflecting off a crew member’s face or illuminating a dimly lit room. I’ve always had a love for imaginative lighting styles, and Life supplies plenty of it.

Without discussing too much of how the film ends, I felt very disappointed in the last five minutes or so. It took Life in an unsatisfying and unnecessary direction, ultimately leaving a sour taste in the audiences’ mouths. The ending wasn’t horrible per se, I just think that it’s an overused and cop-out way to end a movie.

The biggest issue with Life is that it attempts to recycle dialogue and plot devices from many of its contemporaries. Essentially dooming itself to future obscurity in the process. It’s kind of like the 2013 film Elysium. It isn’t a bad film by any means, but how does Elysium stand out from other science fiction movies like Oblivion, Interstellar, Gravity, or The Martian? The answer? It doesn’t, not one bit. That’s because it’s your run-of-the-mill dystopian flick that makes few attempts at trying new things. Life, in many respects, is very similar.

Life has a lot of great qualities to it, and I had a lot of fun watching it. However, Life just doesn’t distinguish itself enough from all the other sci-fi films out there. With so many acting talents and skilled individuals behind the camera, I feel like they should’ve been able to accomplish this. Instead, I’m sure many will consider this just a slightly above average “stranded in space” movie.

Even with its crummy ending and recycled content, Life still managed to entertain me tremendously. I loved all the characters and their development in the story, as well as the design of the alien. The tone that the film sets is creepy and bleak, and the camera work kept the film interesting. Call me a sucker for science fiction films, but Life nonetheless gave me a worthwhile experience.

The Verdict: B

-Zachary Flint