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

 

Spirited Away Review

Having really enjoyed reviewing the film Howl’s Moving Castle, I have decided to review some other major Studio Ghibli titles. Therefore, I feel it would be proper for me to start with my most favorite of Ghibli’s films, Spirited Away.

Spirited Away is about a young girl named Chihiro, who is with her parents on their way to their new home. They all stumble upon an abandoned amusement park that, at night, magically comes to life with mythical creatures. And through an unfortunate turn of events, Chihiro’s parents are magically turned into giant pigs. The only way she can get them back is to take a job working at a bathhouse that serves these mythical creatures.

Spirited Away showcases the always amazing talents of Studio Ghibli and their ability to put even the slightest details into their animation. You could pause the film at any moment in time to analyze and admire every little component of the animation. Each and every image is awe-inspiring, and all together they create a visually gripping story.

Throughout this magical journey that the audience gets to experience, we meet a wide variety of imaginative creatures that have now become cultural icons of their own. The biggest is probably No-Face, a semi-transparent spirit that can absorb the personalities of others when he eats them. Not only are characters like No-Face interesting and complex, but they leave a lasting impression on the viewer. Even minor characters you don’t see for more than a few seconds I remember ever so vividly (like the giant yellow ducks with leaves on their heads).

I feel that Spirited Away takes a very relaxed and laid back tone to its storytelling. Even at its most intense or sad points, Spirited Away still manages to maintain a happy mood. It’s the kind of film that I can watch at any point in time and not have to be in any particular emotional state to view it.

The soundtrack of the film creates a fun and adventurous mood that draws the viewer into the magic. The music is very similar to Howl’s Moving Castle, both in sound and how they create a lighthearted mood. Spirited Away’s soundtrack is among my favorite soundtracks to any kids film and is worth checking out on its own.

All in all, Spirited Away remains one of my favorite animated movies. It has everything that a film should have and more. The characters are fantastic, the story odd and adventurous, and the animation is some of the best I have ever seen. If you have never gotten a chance to experience the magic of Spirited Away, by all means I implore you to see it immediately. Spirited Away affirms Studio Ghibli’s place as one of the greatest animation companies of all time and will continue to astonish audiences around the world for many years to come.

The Verdict: A

-Zachary Flint

Howl’s Moving Castle Review

One animation studio you can always count on to turn out a decent film is Studio Ghibli. Ever since I was a kid I’ve been a huge fan of their films Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro, and my respect for them only continues to grow. So today I made the decision to review Studio Ghibli’s very own film, Howl’s Moving Castle.

Howl’s Moving Castle takes place in a fictional world full of war torn kingdoms, witches, and magic. Our main character, a young hatter named Sophie (Emily Mortimer), is turned into an old woman by the curse of an evil witch. Sophie seeks out the help of a well known wizard named Howl (christian Bale), who lives in a giant portable castle. Sophie learns that the king endlessly attempts to recruit Howl to fight in a brutal war going on with the neighboring kingdom. Sophie decides to aid Howl in resisting the king’s wishes. Along for the journey, the audience gets to meet a plethora of colorful and unique characters.

I would like to start by discussing the animation, because in usual Studio Ghibli fashion the visuals are breathtaking. Every frame of animation is a beautifully hand drawn painting, with exquisite attention to detail. This film is full of beautiful images of grassy landscapes, early 20th century city life, and creative fantasy creatures. I know the process for animating films like Howl’s Moving Castle is lengthy and time consuming, but damn is it impressive.

Studio Ghibli movies often take on a lucid form of storytelling, especially in Howl’s Moving Castle. Our characters just kind of go with the flow in terms of the plot, and the direction the film takes is always subject to change. Our protagonist will set out to do something, have her goal changed by some event, then will precede to roll with it and (as I said) go with the flow. I love this aspect of Howl’s Moving Castle because it makes the film unpredictable. You think that a series of events is leading to one thing, then suddenly the film u-turns and goes another direction.

The characters in Howl’s Moving Castle are diverse and very interesting. One of my favorites being a little fire demon named Calcifer (Billy Crystal), who runs Howl’s castle. He is very snarky and gets into arguments a lot with the other protagonists. Every second Calcifer is on screen is pure gold, as Billy Crystal gives him a lot of personality (just as he did Mike Wazowski in Monsters Inc.). I have a feeling other viewers will love the characters like Calcifer just as much as I do.

Howl’s Moving Castle deals heavily in the theme of war, mostly in opposition to the Iraq War. It takes a pacifist look towards war and all the pain it causes, which is an interesting angle. There is some unique imagery of war, including a fight in the dark between a group of airships. We see a lot of explosions and destruction caused by the airships as well as one of the protagonists injured badly by them. Some might find the film a little on the preachy side with the all anti-war messages and themes. I rather enjoyed these messages, however I think it’s understandable if some are irritated.

The musical score of Howl’s Moving Castle is very reminiscent of other Hayao Miyazaki (director of most Studio Ghibli productions) films like Spirited Away. The music is very soothing and relaxing, but also full of wonder and adventure. It’s something that really sticks out to me in Howl’s Moving Castle and for good reason.

The film ends on a very satisfying note. There are a few elements of the ending that seem a little on the convenient deus ex machina side. However I think that’s just how Studio Ghibli operates, and it’s totally fine. Their endings to films are always very different and unpredictable, delivering a satisfying conclusion.

I’m not sure exactly how Howl’s Moving Castle has alluded me for so long, but I am very glad I got the chance to experience it. The characters, story, animation, and music are all a delightful treat. It’s an odd film, but it deals with a lot of different themes in its own unique way. If you have an interest in animated or kids films, Howl’s Moving Castle is definitely one you should check out.

The Verdict: A

-Zachary Flint