It helps to talk about Mary And The Witch's Flower, from an ex-Studio Ghibli outfit named Studio Ponoc, by way of its two most likely potential audiences: kids and parents generally, and people specifically looking for a Studio Ghibli-related product. The first group will be quite happy; this is a sprightly, diverting, lavish-looking movie with an intriguing moral undertone. Group #2 will be counting off on their fingers the number of outward references, aesthetic and explicit, to both other Ghibli productions and other anime. But while this movie doesn't break ground aesthetically, it breaks rank with other stories in its vein aimed at young viewers, and reminds us that the best magic of all is the most commonplace kind that exists between friends and beloveds.
Mary's magic escape
Flower falls into roughly the same bucket as Kiki's Delivery Service, Howl's Moving Castle, The Secret World Of Arietty, and When Marnie Was There, as it's a screen adaptation of a work written for young readers, rather than an original project. But the real distinction to make with other projects ought to be less about its origins or even its quality than its overall flavor. It's lighthearted and rompish, not a brooding wide-gauge production like Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind or Princess Mononoke, one of those stories where all of creation seems to hang in the balance.
The Mary of the title is Mary Smith, freshly relocated to the country ahead of her parents, living with her great-aunt in a bucolic part of the countryside. Mary, with a mop of unruly carrotty-red hair perpetually askew, is squarely in the long-standing tradition of Ghibli Girls: young, feisty, a little too headstrong for her own good. She wants very badly to be useful, only to find that the gap between her skill and her enthusiasm is frustratingly wide. Most everything she does that's meant to be helpful ends in a mess that someone else resigns themselves to cleaning up. None of this endears her to Peter, a local boy whose teasing may be cover for actually liking her.
One day Mary follows one of Peter's into the forest. There she encounters a curious blue flower that apparently imbues her with some manner of magical essence. We have some idea of what this is; we saw, in the movie's James Bond-style cold opening, a girl of about Mary's age making off with it from some kind of sky castle, only to lose it to the wild. The flower gives an unwitting Mary the power to enchant a broomstick and zoom off on it to that very same sky castle.
This place is Endor College — a sort of Hogwarts-in-the-clouds, a school of magic for the few, the proud, the sorcerously inclined. Its overseers, Headmistress Mumblechook and Doctor Dee (fans of real-world occultism ought to recognize that name), welcome in Mary and woo her. She's a magical prodigy, and surely the promise of learning how to hone her power at Endor is far more intriguing than her current mundane and grubby life. Surely here she can make a real difference!
But Mary's power was only borrowed, not innate. And the more we see of Endor generally, and Mumblechook and Dee in particular, the more we realize their cultivation of magic has ended up becoming a corrupting influence. It falls to Mary to fight that — and not primarly with the magic she's acquired (although she has a little help from an unexpected source in that department), but by way of her own moral strength and courage.
It's all but obligatory to talk about the quality of the animation when dealing with anything Ghibli-related. Their work, and the work of Ponoc in turn, is not always the most adventurous — for that you want the likes of Studio 4°C or MADHOUSE — but it is consistently some of the most polished, endearing, and eye-pleasing. Mary only feels like it has so much room for being inventive in its look and feel, since most of the fantasy material is pretty familiar territory by now — not just by way of Harry Potter, but other recent anime, too (Little Witch Academia). But the craftsmanship, the painstaking care shows through in how they depict everything. Not just Doctor Dee's crazy-quilt chimeras, which look like refugees from Fullmetal Alchemist (you see how easy it is to stack up the outside references?), but simple things like the way sunlight and wind can sweep unevenly across a meadow. And then there are those trademark scenes of great spectacle, as when Mary frees the animals from Dee's lab and leads them on a stampede across the land.
Because the kid's-magic-school stuff is so well-worn by now in popular culture, I wondered how Mary would distinguish itself. It turns out that the real subject of the story is not how Mary masters magic, but how she comes to realize it's as much a limitation and a danger as it is a source of strength — that it is not her, and that it is not hers to have, either. Contrast this with Mumblechook and Dee: they were once decent people, but the promise of power, coupled with best intentions on their part, drove them to do questionable things. One of the most courageous things Mary chooses to do, then, is to not follow in their footsteps and let her ability with magic call the shots in her life. And yet this is also not a story about someone who just shrugs at power offered; the mere refusal to use power is not by itself noble, especially if doing so means others who abuse their power now have a free hand. Rather, it's about someone who says yes to power only long enough to finish the job in front of them, and who knows that she and the power she commands are not in fact one and the same. It's her tenacity and her devotion to others, not her affinity for magic, that's the greater part of her identity. She's Mary Smith first, everything else second.
At some point in the cultural evolution of the world came the notion of the children's story, a narrative designed to be received all the more readily by a younger audience. I've come to realize such things are not so much about subject matter as they are about philosophy — that the world is a place to be received with eyes fully open, and the story in question is one example of how to do it. The biggest mistake you can make when creating a story for kids is to treat them like little dolts that only respond to vulgar distractions. Much of what's aimed at them these days tries to invoke cynicism and smarm, but kids are smarter, more aware, more au courant today than ever before, and they respond (even if only subconsciously) when someone appeals to their nascent youthful wisdom instead.
What I like best about Mary is not just that it looks great and provides adventure, but that it knows in its bones all that I have touched on in the last couple of paragraphs, and embodies all that without seeming to try too hard. It bodes well for what Ponoc might do next when they decide to really spread their wings.