Monday, 22 January 2018

Mary And The Witch's Flower (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: Red-haired scamp Mary (Ruby Barnhill) has moved in with her great-aunt Charlotte (Lynda Baron) and, with a week left to go before school starts, she has found herself struggling to find ways to occupy her time. However, that all changes when a chance encounter in the nearby forest leads her to the Ender College, a prestigious school for witches and warlocks, with headmaster Madame Mumblechook (Kate Winslet) remarking that Mary could be a truly incredible witch. To make things even more surreal, it seems that this college isn’t all that it seems, and it’s up to Mary to get to the bottom of the college’s less-than-virtuous ambitions.

I’m going by the English dub for the film, and “English” certainly is the operative word since this is just about the poshest voice cast I’ve yet to cover on this blog as far as animated films go. Barnhill as our lead does well at channelling the kind of young female protagonist director Hiromasa Yonebayashi is most familiar with, although that is far more of an accomplishment considering the rather basic character she’s been given here. Probably helps that she has some prior experience with this kind of protagonist from The BFG. Lynda Baron as her great-aunt Charlotte, combined with Morwenna “No, I still haven’t forgiven you for Miss You Already” Banks as the housekeeper, do very nicely at setting up the initial grounding.

Winslet as Madame McGonagall… er… I mean Madame Mumblechook, aside from being a vast improvement over the last time we checked in on her, might have done a little too well as being the initially-pleasant headmaster, given the character switch-ups that happen later. Jim Broadbent as the chemistry teacher Doctor Dee gives some real buoyancy to the part, Teresa Gallagher as the Red Headed Witch works alright considering her only vocal presence involves delivering ALL the exposition, and Ewen Bremner as the flying instructor Flanagan makes for a good first impression into the hidden world of magic in this story.

This is the feature-length debut of Studio Ponoc, and it seems that Yonebayashi has brought a truckload of experience from his days with Studio Ghibli as this film definitely striking to look at. It may show the occasional bit of budget-stretching chicken scratch, but the animators give a lot of serene beauty to Mary’s English abode and it only increases in grandeur once we reach the magic college. The amount of attention to minor detail in how the locale, the people who inhabit it and the magic at their fingertips are realized results in a very solid visual offering.
However, as I let slip during the cast rundown, it is near-impossible not to draw parallels between this and another story involving prodigious English children going to a school of magic. Partly because of the minor details that make said comparisons all too easy, but also because I wish I was watching a Hogwarts-set story as opposed to what is offered here. Once we reach the magic school, its place in the film’s universe is explored through the most surface-level world-building imaginable. It doesn’t even give us a chance to get lost in this world of wonder before immediately and repeatedly leading the audience by the collar to the next plot point like a cat on a leash.

This isn’t helped by the characterisation of everyone we see here, which likewise relies on a lot of skin-deep detail.


Starting off with Mary, we have a lead character who is apparently a magical prodigy whose main fault is that she is rather clumsy. Good thing they explained her last name is Smith because, otherwise, I would have assumed that it was Sue, given how familiar this archetype is. Then there’s her friendship with local boy Peter (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), which basically goes from “ooh, I hate him” to “oh no, I have to save him” without even a hint of transition. Then there’s Mumblechook and Doctor Dee, who also suffer from a lack of adjustment from being the good guys to being the bad guys. We aren’t even given enough time to latch onto them before being given express reasons not to. To say nothing of Flanagan, who only exists in this story to be at the right place at the right time to either give exposition or to flat-out save our leads. Because of this, the most likeable character in this whole thing is Mary’s cat familiar Tib, as the cat not only doesn’t ever talk but also gives the perfect rolling-of-eyes reaction to everything happening around it.

Not to say that this film has nothing going for it in terms of writing. Far from it, as while the setting isn’t given as much detail as one would like, the way it looks into the mechanics of magic leads the film down some familiar but ultimately intriguing paths. It treats magic and science as intertwined, giving some decent titbits like how potion-making is just chemistry under a different name, and it keeps that same approach once it gets into the less-than-savoury side of magic in this world.

Honestly, as much as it is a little easy to make comparisons to Studio Ghibli given the film’s production pedigree, this is where the comparison becomes a bit more favourable, as this film carries quite a few of the more naturalistic touches audiences associate with the work of Miyazaki and co.
Through the synergy of magic and science, it gets into discussions of how they are both tools at the hands of mortal creatures and how natural elements aren’t to be trifled with, entering into discussions about experimentation and animal testing that would feel right at home in a more fantasy-tinged version of Okja. It creates subtext with the kind of deft touch that Ghibli mostly managed to pull off, but it still clashes with the elements surrounding it. As solid as this commentary is on man and nature and where the two need to leave each other alone, it’s still being delivered through a barely fleshed-out world and painfully basic characters. As a result, it ends up faltering under the weight of everything else it has to carry on its back, resulting in a film that is more than a little disappointing.

All in all, this is an unfortunately plain affair. The voice acting is solid and the visuals can get quite vibrant at times, but the writing lets both of those positives down at nearly every turn. The characters are flat and irritatingly developed, the setting never ends up feeling like anything other than window-dressing, and while the story may have some good points to make about scientific experimentation, it also suffers from a lack of real detail into anything that we’re seeing. That, and a lot of the bigger plot points are brought up and resolved in rather insultingly convenient ways.

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