‘Tonight, I really am a witch…’
Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (an animator alumni of Studio Ghibli who also directed the transcendent When Marnie Was There) this is a gentle and wonderfully animated story. Aimed more at children than adults, tonally and thematically this is more like Ponyo rather than Spirited Away.
Mary has recently moved to a village in the country that feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere. It’s just her, her Great Aunt Charlotte, the maid and the gardener living in the Charlotte’s large estate. Mary’s parents will be arriving in a week’s time plus most of the village children are away for the summer holidays so, for now, Mary must keep herself entertained. The only other person her age that Mary comes into contact with is Peter, a boy with whom she doesn’t seem that fond of. He’s also got two very oddly behaving cats, Tib and Gib. The cats seem wary of a mysterious blue flower; in fact they seem utterly repelled by it. Mary is mesmerised by it and, not heeding their warning, plucks it from the ground, causing her to develop magical powers and pushing her into the path of a whole lot of trouble…
Whilst watching it wasn’t Studio Ghibli films I found myself thinking of. It was Coraline, the 2009 stop-motion animaition of Neil Gaiman’s 2002 novel. Both Coraline and Mary... are about young girls, at the inbetween stage of no longer being a child but not quite being a teenager either, who through a combintaton of boredom and curiosity find themselves getting into trouble involving mysterious forces. Both girls are also responsible, for the most part, for getting themselves out of that trouble. There’s no-one else about to save them and they’re not going to be saved by some boy (a sentiment more accurate for the book version of Coraline rather than the film). That’s something that is refreshing and great to witness, knowing young girls are being exposed to the message they don’t need a saviour – they can be their own saviour.
There’s also another, even more positive message, on display here. Although the film is about magic (a la the Witch’s Flower in the title) it serves as more of an allegory for self-discovery and self-acceptance. Mary doesn’t quite feel comfortable in the real world. She’s not all-too sure where she fits in within her new home and she seems to have a knack for getting everything wrong. She’s desperate to help everyone but manages to break or cut or destroy most of the things she touches. She never explicitly says it but it is clear that Mary isn’t all that happy. The magic she discovers doesn’t fix things – in fact it heightens a lot of her problems – but it allows her to accept herself and find her place within things. She learns to be herself, a wonderful message and one that all ages can appreciate.
Mary is a delightful character to follow, and her being a fellow redhead added another dimension for me. There’s something tremendously endearing and earnest about her which allows for us to instantly warm to her. The other characters aren’t given as much depth and there’s certain narrative elements which could have been more developed or explained. But, if you’re looking for a film with that extra bit of sparkle and a whole heap of loveliness, this is the film for you.
Mary And The Witch’s Flower is in UK cinemas from May 18th.