With his third feature film as a director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi has yet to develop an identity for himself outside of Studio Ghibli, where he began his career and made his debut, The Secret World of Arrietty, eight years ago. His films are technically impeccable, with the kind of detail and beauty that Hayao Miyazaki is known for, but something is missing. And it’s that something extra that marks Miyazaki as a great artist, while Yonebayashi is merely a skillful animator. Mary and the Witch’s Flower proves an excellent case-in-point. A young girl, bored while living with older relatives in the countryside, accidentally stumbles into a magical world above the clouds. Finding a flower that temporarily grants her magical powers, she’s mistaken for a new student and rushed into a wondrous school of wizardry by a magical broomstick. But it turns out the headmistress and the school’s resident scientist have been conducting mad experiments in interspecies hybrids, jeopardizing the girl and her friend Peter. Mary has to rescue the boy and defeat the evil sorcerers before it’s too late*.
The look owes everything to Miyazaki joints like Kiki’s Delivery Service, Castle in the Sky (which you can catch this week at the Egyptian, kicking off the Northwest Film Forum’s annual Children’s Film Festival) and Howl’s Moving Castle. Mary is a headstrong girl with a mess of unruly red hair and a strong moral center. The magic school is made of gently steampunkish castles floating in seas of green, and the herds of experimented-upon animals recall the armies of forest creatures in Princess Mononoke. It’s all very beautiful, with some nice fantastical images and one quiet moment of repose. But where in Castle in the Sky the quiet moment is an oasis of beauty in an otherwise non-stop adventure, a pause to remind the heroes of what they’re fighting to defend and what the world has lost, and in Spirited Away the quiet moment leads to a soft deflation of all the expected action film anxiety right before it should have burst, in Mary it merely serves as a location for the delivery of flashbacked backstory before the final, rote, chase/battle sequences.
Yonebayashi’s last film, When Marnie Was There, was much more successful in breaking out of the Miyazaki template, bringing a ghostly Gothic romance edge to its story of a young girl coming of age. Mary, though, is a recapitulation, a kind of remix of Miyazaki without any of the idiosyncrasy. The scenario isn’t much more complex than that of Howl’s, or Ponyo, but Miyazaki is incapable of making an impersonal work and those films, targeted as they are (especially the later) toward the littlest kids, abound in the kind of small oddities and plot-free idylls that make a movie world come to life. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a beautiful movie, and God knows it’s better than at least 90% of what passes for children’s entertainment in American multiplexes, but it’s a ghost.
*Note that I watched the English dub of this Japanese film. It’s what was available on the press screener and, as far as I can tell, the English version is the only one that will be playing during the film’s run at the Meridian. But Regal is haphazard in noting dubbing or subtitling on their animated films. The English dub is quite good though, with Kate Winslet and Jim Broadbent adding some degree of star power. The film’s source and setting, it’s based on a novel by British writer Mary Stewart, are perfectly consistent with English accented voices, with none of the discordances caused by the dubbing of Isao Takahata’s very Japanese Only Yesterday a few years ago.