Review of Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017)

Moving picture, 103 minutes

Yonebayashi Hiromasa (director).

Seen in 2018.

Seen in the cinema with unfaithful Swedish-language dubtitles.

A careless, easily bored 10-year-old becomes more considerate and open to experience by spending a couple of days in a frantic struggle at the local college of magic.

There is a sense of wonder and internal logic to the secret world of magic in this movie, but it’s very near the noise floor. The magic is bright and colourful but rarely whimsical, surprising, practical, or symbolic. It seems largely redundant. There’s no in-universe reason why it’s even secret.

While she’s being exposed to a long parade of wonders in a tour of the college, Mary is unmoved, as if she’s already seen Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) and expected something like it. After passing by students pushed toward jets of flame on a conveyor belt, a pig creature like Porco Rosso (1992) and a roasting pig, Mary says “Cooking with magic – that sounds delicious.” Her experience is that shallow. This superficiality extends to the moral plane. The villains lack all redeeming features and seem to have no motivation for their grand scheme, which fails for no apparent reason, just like the last time they tried doing exactly the same thing and blew up the school in a massive fireball. The broomstick breaks but is quickly repaired. Nothing sticks.

The pacing is brisk, passing from one sequence to another through a series of simple narrative tokens: The school’s first rule, which makes no sense, is recited because it drives the plot. The other rules are not known because they do not drive the plot, damaging the setting. Gib and Peter exist to be threatened in precisely the manner required to get Mary to turn back and do something on queue. Within the story there is no reason why Gib or Peter are selected. The first is an improbable coincidence, the second a lazy, overly self-destructive move on the part of the villains.

Though the subtitles used in the Swedish cinematic run were credited to John Ottosson, he has contacted me to say that he did not translate but merely transcribed Njutafilms’s Swedish dubbing script. This script is so unfaithful that it may have been created from a reading of the original novel without knowledge of Japanese. In it, the second kidnapping of Peter is motivated only by an overtly moralist metaphysical premise: Because he is morally good, Peter is a suitable subject for transformation. This is baffling. I am not certain how prominent this notion is in the Japanese script or the novel, but there seems to be no other reason why the villains would use Peter. I have to assume the writers deliberately conflate plot convenience with moral dichotomy. That would not have passed muster at Ghibli.

Beyond Charlotte, Mary’s family is excluded as irrelevant. She never misses her parents. Peter likewise has no family looking for him because they do not drive the plot. He and not the head of his household is named as the recipient of the jar of preserves, not because Charlotte wants Mary and Peter to be friends: Again it’s because Peter’s family does not drive the plot, so they have to be invisible, in the stereotypical manner of shōjo manga as characterized in “The World of Anime and the Scenario” (1995). The writers might as well have gone for the orphan cliché. Mary herself, supposedly the protagonist, makes no interesting or unexpected decisions. When she rescues animals, they turn into her private army, as if all things worked to her benefit. The story thus seems to have very little integrity.

Despite the simplicity and immediacy of the plot, quite a lot of the established material is underused. There is no attempt to innovate with the recognizable motif of the school of magic, or make it interesting to a new generation of kids who haven’t seen it before. The principal mentions that electricity is magic but this is dropped on the floor as a joke, not used to build a setting. All subjects studied at the school revolve around magic, yet Doctor Dee is a caricature of a scientist: A mumbling, incomprehensible, physically ridiculous failure of a cyborg with an enlarged cranium. He is supposed to understand everything on his own, yet turns out to be ignorant: An ugly caricature indeed. Dee’s students aren’t paying attention to him, nor does he ever need them. In fact, no students are developed as characters. This is a curious choice of where to trim the story. It makes the school itself almost irrelevant, even as a backdrop.

In this type of insipid children’s fantasy, magic usually stands for getting what you want: An implicit rejection of nature. The sole redeeming spark of real intelligence in the script is Mary and Peter’s decision to call the whole thing off, saying they don’t need magic. This is followed, almost immediately, by the film’s most beautiful paintings of natural greenery in gentle parallax, a product of the lab’s transformation into the reawakened world tree. Alas, that scene in turn is soon followed by another fool on a phallus farting a rainbow in the sky.

The film is well executed on the level of craftsmanship, but almost empty in conception. Its ideas all seem to come from somewhere else. It’s not a Ghibli film, but like many Ghibli films, it takes place in a pre-cellphone, rural near past to appease nostalgic bourgeois parents. The college above the clouds looks a bit like Castle in the Sky (1986). It’s even concealed by a thunderhead like Laputa, and it has a world tree, but there’s no sense of history to it and the robot servants are crudely rendered by comparison. The college’s baroque supernatural creatures have the sinister note of Spirited Away (2001), but Mary and the Witch’s Flower is neither fable nor allegory. Mary’s unsupervised discovery in the rural forest might remind you of My Neighbor Totoro (1988), without the older film’s wonder and delight. Mary keeping a black cat as a familiar and riding a phallus recall Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) but come from Mary Stewart’s novel; it is the earlier film that’s derivative. Mary’s maturation seems a lot less credible than Kiki’s, being practically instant by comparison. There is a talking fire with less personality than Calcifer of Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), and a beautiful blue shoggoth rather like Kaonashi. Alas, a derivative spectacle.

References here: NiNoKuni (2019), Earwig and the Witch (2020).

moving picture animation Japanese production fiction