Following on from yesterday, these reviews: Mary and the Witch's Flower and Woodshock.
I have a confession to make, which doesn't make me proud, and kind of puts paid to any pretensions I ever had to being an animation nerd: I'm not really sure I love Hayao Miyazaki. I know I'm supposed
to love Miyazaki, which is why I own a half-dozen Miyazaki films, all of which I... like okay, I guess. I obviously respect
Miyazaki and his legacy and all that. Yet it is a legacy that casts a long, long shadow over Japanese animation, and my ambivalence toward Miyazaki's style is compounded when his successors in the field have tried to copy it. Hence The Children Who Chase Lost Voices
, one of the two big feature-length missteps (alongside The Place Promised In Our Early Days
) that Makoto Shinkai made on his way to making his pair of mature masterworks, The Garden of Words
and Your Name
Hence also, and far more directly, Mary and the Witch's Flower, directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, formerly of The Secret World of Arietty and When Marnie Was There and therefore formerly of Studio Ghibli itself, back before it was put on standby due to Miyazaki's (now-abortive) retirement. A little bit of background, then: Mary was the first release of Studio Ponoc, the result of a sort of semi-accidental Don Bluthing of Studio Ghibli during Miyazaki's retirement/sabbatical, and somewhat consciously designed to be Ghibli's rightful heir. This explains the poaching of Yonebayashi, and it explains also the film Yonebayashi made for them, which is kind of like someone's idea of Studio Ghibli, turned up to eleven in some respects and to zero in others, and which is also at least somewhat terrible.
The story (based on The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart) concerns young ginger Mary (huh) (Hana Sugisaki), an English girl sent off to spend a summer in the countryside with her great aunt Charlotte (Shinobu Otake); Mary is bored totally out of her gourd, of course, and we in the audience certainly sympathize, given that Mary spends an awful, awful lot of time stewing in its heroine's lazy, hazy forced-vacation. On the other hand, Mary's shenanigans on the estate and in town, where she meets a colorful local jerk named Peter (Ryunosuke Kamiki) are cutesy-fun, and we know this is eventually going somewhere, thanks to the action-packed prologue that involved a broom-riding witch (another redhead) escaping an evil fortress and not looking back (so far as I recall) as it explodes. The call to adventure comes when Mary follows a preternaturally-intelligent cat deep into the woods, where she finds a certain magical flower, identified later as a "fly-by-night," and also the broomstick left behind ages ago by the unnamed witch of the prologue. (This actually takes two whole scenes, which is perhaps not ideal.) At this point, she gets flower gunk on her new broom, and lo, it lifts her aloft to a world of magic, specifically the Endor College for Witches.
If this is a faithful adaptation of Stewart's 1971 novel, then I obviously cannot blame Stewart, but the reason Mary exists is, pretty clearly, because Harry Potter existed first; and, fittingly enough, you can even spot the little bespectacled warlock's doppelganger in a (somewhat forced and cloying) insert shot. In any event, I doubt it's supposed to be Tim Hunter. Mary takes a more circuitous route for its hero's journey, because Mary is effectively a muggle on roids due to the fly-by-night, and while this is possibly more interesting on paper, it naturally ends up in the same basic place as Harry's more frivolous early dungeon-crawls; and the short of it is that Mary grifts her way into the school with her flower-buffed powers, which leads to something like the expected outcome, though in the process Mary also becomes aware that the school is a front for a sinister plot that only she can foil, led by two of Endor's distinguished faculty, headmistress Madame Mumblechook (Yuki Amami), and might-as-well-be-called-their-defense-against-the-dark-arts-instructor, Doctor Dee (Fumiyo Kohinata), an erudite reference I have chosen to be rather annoyed by.
So we have many of the characteristic Ghiblisms, starting from the very basic, that could probably refer to just about any fantastic fiction (a world of weird magic entered by a human child—it's more Ghibli if it's a girl, though), to the more specific (a caricatured old woman serving as the chief antagonist), to the stylization of the animated form itself, which is effectively indistinguishable from a turn-of-the-century Ghibli piece and which is probably the reason I find so many Miyazaki movies off-putting in the first place, though at least in Spirited Away
, it was clearly on purpose. Yonebayashi was a key animator on that, and it shows: Mary
is awash in the squiggling, quivering, Kid's Kronenberg design ethos that gives the film's creatures and, er, magical fluids a strangely organic, even bizarrely sexual tinge, and I'll pretty much never enjoy that in a kid's entertainment, especially not one that's just way
too pleased to revolve around the mechanic of a wee cartoon girl spilling blue lube out of a flower and having a hard shaft of wood get bigger in her hands before she shoves it between her legs. I'd like
to believe this is my hang-up, but I don't know any other way to read the images Yonebayashi's chosen—if there is a credible reason why a witch's broom must become tumescent
, I'd like to hear it—but, sure, this sort of thing puts Mary
quite squarely within the grand Ghibli tradition of Catbusses, horrifyingly-mutated forest gods, and whatever the fuck was going on in Yubaba's bathhouse.
The difference is that Mary
, being a knockoff, does it without the quality of Miyazaki's imagination, or the sheer quantity of it. (Or of J.K. Rowling's imagination, for that matter.) And it lacks, too, any of the deeper sense of mystical weirdness that Miyazaki's worlds always conjured, whatever other objections I might have had to their creation. (Ironically, then, I kind of wish it were actually more of a Potter rip-off than it already is: by far—by far
—the most enjoyable part of the film is the sequence where Mary bashes her way through her first day of "classes," simply because this is the only sequence that appears to be especially concerned with the Endor College as an institution, and hence packs the screen with practically all of Mary
's cool visual and conceptual notions. Plus, Harry Potter And the Secret of the 103 Minute Runtime
would be, by default, my favorite Harry Potter
movie of all.)
Instead of that, sadly, Mary gets a couple of lame villains with an evil plot barely worthy of a forgotten Saturday morning cartoon (not very Ghibli at all, that), and then takes its sweet time even getting to its several foregone conclusions—if you haven't figured out the mystery of the Prologue Witch about an hour before the film solves it for you, I don't know what to tell you, and when Mary finally twists, it chooses the least interesting way to actually go about doing it. What you get in the end is a movie that's not really even interestingly abrasive in the way Ghibli fantasies often were, because it's too damn dull to be anything, really: nothing but a technically well-done rendition of character and creature designs that feel twenty or thirty years out-of-date, run through a plot dependent upon mostly-boring (and mostly-purloined) ideas, with no emotional hook that I noticed, and which stalls out almost the second it starts (which, again, is a good thirty minutes into the movie). 2017 was a pretty great year for anime, all told, but not because of this.