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[Editor’s Pick] Almost Ghibli

After Studio Ghibli shuttered its filmmaking arm in 2014, veteran producer Nishimura Yoshiaki founded the new animation house Studio Ponoc with the help of other key Ghibli alumni, most notably Yonebayashi Hiromasa. In its thirty-year history, besides Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata Isao, Studio Ghibli has only had two other in-house directors with more than one feature film credit: Yonebayashi and Miyazaki Goro. As the rare Miyazaki protégé to gain directing reins, Yonebayashi seemed to be Studio Ghibli’s future when he stepped out with The Borrower Arrietty in 2010.

Though Nishimura and Yonebayashi are no longer with Studio Ghibli, they have brought the themes and aesthetics that they spent years creating to their new venture. Studio Ponoc’s inaugural feature film Mary and the Witch’s Flower is undeniably evocative of Ghibli both visually and thematically. Based on British writer Mary Stewart’s The Little Broomstick, the film follows a young and inquisitive redhead who moves to the countryside to live with a relative. She discovers a magical flower that grants her temporary powers and a broomstick that whisks her away to a wizarding academy in the skies run by a menacing headmistress and a bonkers inventor.

Though it’s tempting to compare this Ghibli-like story of a young witch transported to another world to Miyazaki classics like Kiki’s Delivery Service and Spirited Away, the fairer point of comparison is to Yonebayashi’s own previous Ghibli efforts, which also had young heroines, old-timey countryside settings and British story sources. Mary and the Witch’s Flower could use more character development, and it doesn’t conjure as much fantastical magic as one would hope, but there’s still plenty of imagination and adventure to be found in the family-friendly, briskly paced story. Though not as charming as The Borrower Arrietty, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is easily more accessible and enjoyable than When Marnie Was There.

Many animated films get likened to Ghibli works because the legendary studio has profoundly influenced the industry for so many years. That comparison can be a burden, but for Mary and the Witch’s Flower, it is an acknowledgment of the filmmakers’ creative roots and a feeling of relief that, even as the reopened Ghibli’s future production direction remains uncertain, at least Studio Ponoc will help carry on the tradition of magical stories and beautiful hand-drawn animation.

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