The Witch is Familiar
Never mind your Schrödinger's Cat, if you really want to talk about indeterminacy, we need to get onto the topic of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli's retirement. As previously noted on this blog, the announcement, after the production of The Wind Rises, that Miyazaki was knocking film direction on the head due to his advanced years was met with a howl of anguish from world-cinema-friendly theatres matched only by that marking the release of – allegedly – the final Ghibli film of any kind, When Marnie Was There, in 2016.
And yet what gives? Not only did a Ghibli co-production sneak out last year (the bold human-chelonian romance The Red Turtle), but now Miyazaki has decided he hasn't actually retired after all and is hoping to get a new movie, How Do You Live?, finished in time for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Perhaps most confuzzling of all is the appearance on the scene of the new Japanese animation house Studio Ponoc, which appears to be largely staffed by former employees of Studio Ghibli.
Studio Ponoc's first movie is Mary and the Witch's Flower, directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (director of When Marnie Was There and key contributor to a couple of other recent films), and I don't think it's overstating the case that the new movie is coat-tailing Ghibli in order to secure the kind of major international release not normally received by the debut movies of non-Anglophone animation houses. The Ghibli influence begins with the choice of source material, which is a little out of left field: in this case, a 1971 novel by the noted English writer Mary Stewart, although the title has been changed from The Little Broomstick, possibly to make it more reminiscent of another set of books and films we may well find ourselves discussing as an influence on this one.
We are in fairly classic territory here, anyway – one of the characters wears a hoodie, another is rocking a baseball cap, but there is virtually nothing in the story that would be out of place if the film was actually set fifty years ago. The Mary of the title is a lonely and restless young girl (voiced in the English dub by Ruby Barnhill) who has just been sent to the country to live with her great-aunt (a perhaps unexpected but by no means unwelcome appearance by Lynda Baron of Open All Hours fame). Left to her own devices, one day she wanders off into the woods and makes a couple of surprising discoveries: a mysterious glowing plant, and an old broomstick.
Yup, we are off into a child-friendly tale of rather traditionally-conceived magic and mysticism, for Mary finds that the plant charges her with supernatural power, and the broom whisks her off into another world and deposits her at the Endor School for witches and warlocks. Here she is greeted by the head teacher, Madame Mumblechook (Kate Winslet), and her deputy Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent), who hail her as a prodigy amongst young witches, a shoo-in as a new student, a potential head girl, and so on. But do the duo have an ulterior motive for delivering such fulsome praise? And does Mary's own family have a connection to the history of the school for witches...?
I remember first seeing the trailer for Mary and the Witch's Flower and the feeling of bafflement it immediately provoked: the look of the thing is, at first glance, so utterly indistinguishable from an actual Studio Ghibli movie that you wonder what the point of the rebranding is. Never mind Studio Ponoc, they might as well have called it Studio Jubbly or Studio Giblet. Of course the upside of this is that Ghibli make, or made, the most beautiful traditionally-animated movies in the world, and Mary and the Witch's Flower is also an exceptionally good-looking film. Perhaps it isn't quite as exquisite as some of Ghibli's films, and there are a couple of moments where I thought a little more fine detail wouldn't have gone amiss, but this is still very much business as usual, in a good way.
The question is to what extent this is also true in the story department, for once again you could be forgiven for finding a fair bit of the story to be, well, not exactly burningly innovative. A school for witches and warlocks? With a menagerie of magical beasts? And a lovably Scottish-sounding member of the support staff? To which a lonely child finds themselves transported? Fair enough, they've covered themselves by basing the movie on a book which was published when JK Rowling was still quite tiny herself, but it still seems very much like they're gunning for that lucrative audience hungry for all things which are just a little bit Potter.
I'm not familiar with the Mary Stewart novel, but the script of this movie at least is not really in the same league as those in the other franchise to which I have been alluding. This feels like a movie specifically aimed at quite a young audience, with thin characterisation and a very straightforward story, and in the early stages in particular it ambles along at an amiable pace without a great deal of incident. I found myself in genuine danger of actually falling asleep during the film at one point in the middle; I did go to see an afternoon showing towards the end of a fairly long week, but even so, I don't think this is a good sign.
I am glad to be able to report that the story does pick up a bit as the film builds towards its climax, with some very engaging sequences: visually it gets very interesting, with a definite steampunk feel to some of fantastical alchemical equipment on display, and also a lot of the... do you know, I very nearly wrote 'trademark Ghibli surreal grotesqueness on display'. Well, it's true, this movie does make use of the Ghibli house style – it's just not a Ghibli movie, officially at least. But the thing is that I don't believe the change of marque is really going to fool anyone. This is a nice, well-made, inoffensive kid's animation – I'm not sure it really holds as much for the discerning adult filmgoer as the average Miyazaki movie. What makes it distinctive are its attempts to not be distinctive at all: to emulate pretty much every detail of the Studio Ghibli style of film-making, along with a fair few elements of JK Rowling's famous stories too. Not a bad film at all, but essentially the cinematic equivalent of high-class karaoke.