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May 12, 2018

Mary and the Witch’s Flower

by Franz Patrick


Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

It is surprising that “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” is based on a novel, “The Little Broomstick” authored by Mary Stewart, because it is neither character-driven nor does it offer a grand adventure that stretches the imagination. For the most part, it provides a tolerable experience with occasional eye-catching details, particularly magical creatures that would fit right alongside the best of Studio Ghibli works, but one yearns eventually for a more involving, emotional, or thoughtful experience, especially since part of the story unfolds in a magic school named Elder College, its existence dating back to the age of dragons.

The story begins with great potential as we come to learn about Mary (voiced by Ruby Barnhill) who is bored in the countryside while staying with her great aunt (Lynda Baron) because she arrived there a week early prior to the start of the new school year. No other kid appears to be around with the exception of a boy named Peter (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) who not only teases Mary for her bushy red hair but one who is the opposite of how others perceive her to be. Peter is considered to be hardworking, responsible, and dependable.

Much of the amusement early on stems from Mary attempting to provide assistance to the adults around the estate but her good intentions almost always end up generating more problems. In a way, her own eagerness gets in her way. Because the material takes the time to show the girl’s tenacity for problem-solving and providing services, one suspects that this aspect is going to be the highlight of her adventure. One would be wrong.

The material meanders from one accident to another, whether it be taking a book of magical spells from Elder College’s headmistress (Kate Winslet) out of panic or ending up on an island that appears to be detached from the current timeline. On the surface, it provides an exuberantly lively adventure as it jumps from one setting to another, but more thoughtful viewers are certain to realize eventually that the experience is hollow and empty. As a result, Mary’s growth is most unconvincing; we do not believe by the end that she is a more mature person or someone who is more capable at controlling her emotions in order to accomplish a specific task. Comparing her evolution to Chihiro from “Spirited Away” is inaccurate, perhaps even misleading, because the latter’s evolution is thorough and compelling.

Its animation style is undeniably beautiful; I enjoyed it most when it focuses on the details of the blades of grass or how a cat moves its body as it attempts to communicate a highly specific line of thought. This is an example of a movie having the most stunning animation but the experience ending up substandard overall since the thesis of the story is not fully defined and fleshed out. Action happens simply because it must rather than building up to a climax outside of an action sequence.

Perhaps the film, directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, might have been a more engrossing experience had its goals been simpler. For example, instead of taking down a pair of big-personality villains who brazenly throw ethics out the window in order to push the boundaries of their transformation experiments, why not take a more personal approach, certainly a quieter one, and allow Mary to get into situations that are specifically challenging for her, trials that push her to grow on her own terms? In the middle of the picture, I wondered why this story must be told through Mary’s perspective. The answer is it didn’t need to be.

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