Though both Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki seem to be in this bizarre limbo of being in and out of the animation circuit, it seems that fans of the studio’s style and themes will have somewhere else to look to once their final animation cel is crafted and Ghibli’s doors close for good—Studio Ponoc. For their first feature-length film, Studio Ponoc is giving us Ghibli-esque goodness featuring an adorable protagonist and, of course, magic.
If Mary and the Witch’s Flower looks scarily like a Ghibli film, there’s a good reason for that. Studio Ponoc opened in early 2015, and its founder Yoshiaki Nishimura, a former Ghibli film producer, started the studio with several animators from Studio Ghibli. This time Nishimura is working in collaboration with Hiromasa Yonebayashi—a former Ghibli director—to bring Mary and the Witch’s Flower to life.
As for the story itself, Mary seems to be based on the children’s tale The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart. Stewart’s book focuses on a small girl, the titular Mary, who is enlisted by a black cat named Tib to break a curse. Tib leads her to a flower growing in the woods, beside which she finds a broomstick that takes her to Endor College. There she must uncover the college’s secrets and avoid capture by the evil forces at work. From the trailer, it’s difficult to tell how closely Studio Ponoc will follow the source material—if Howl’s Moving Castle is any example, it may be a very liberal re-telling—but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
My main fear is with Mary’s storytelling. While Nishimura worked on some of my favorite Ghibli films like the aforementioned Howl’s Moving Castle and The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Yonebayashi helped direct two of the films from the Ghibli library that I really didn’t end up liking—Tales from Earthsea and The Secret World of Arrietty. Earthsea ended up not making much sense narratively, and Arrietty was so boring and devoid of real conflict that Ace and I couldn’t bring ourselves to care about the characters at all. I don’t think I have to explain why those traits would be bad for a studio’s inaugural film. However, with both Nishimura and Yonebayashi working together, I have hope, at least, that Mary will carry the fantastical-ness that I love alongside a plot that is both engaging and doesn’t force me to squint at the screen wondering how the heck we got from point A to point B.
In an interview with The Telegraph about Mary and the Witch’s Flower, Nishimura spoke about his intentions with its protagonist Mary, stating that he wants to keep Studio Ghibli’s legacy of showing “the heroines’ humanity rather than any special powers”. If Studio Ponoc manages to do this, I believe they’ll have really captured the heart of what makes Ghibli films so special. Magic is cool and everything, but the capacity for trust and growth in all its forms in these animated heroines is what sets these films apart from many others in the the same medium. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is slated to debut in Japanese theaters during the summer of 2017. Though as of now there are no stated plans to have an English release, I’ll remain optimistic about that too.