Movie Review – Mary and the Witch’s Flower

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EXPECTATIONS: Something as magical as the Studio Ghibli entries.

REVIEW: It’s that fantastic time of the year again! We have another Studio Ghi–Wait a minute! This isn’t a Studio Ghibli film! It is in fact, a Studio Ponoc film. In case you don’t know, Studio Ponoc is an animation studio that was founded in 2015 by people who used to work in Studio Ghibli. One of these people is Hiromasa Yonebayashi, the director of such Ghibli hits like The Secret Life of Arietty and When Marnie Was There.

Since the temporary halt in production in Studio Ghibli due to acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki‘s retirement back in 2014 (and later, his return), Studio Ponoc was born and Mary and the Witch’s Flower was declared as their first film project. Having been in production for two and a half years, the film was finally released, receiving acclaim from filmmakers like Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki.

And now we have the film up for release in English-speaking territories with an English dub, featuring voicework from Ruby Barnhill, Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent and others. Does Mary and the Witch’s Flower live up to the high Ghibli standards or will it succumb to being a Ghibli wannabe?

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Mary Smith (Ruby Barnhill) is living with her great-aunt Charlotte (Lynda Baron) while her parents are on a business trip. It’s the last week of summer before school starts and Mary is bored because virtually all the local kids in the small British town of Redmanor are away on holiday. Desperate to do something to escape the boredom, she requests to do house chores but she fails at doing the simplest tasks and thinks low of her own self-worth.

One day, while eating lunch, she sees a black cat turn to a gray one, she readily follows it into the woods, where she finds a strange glowing blue flower. This, it turns out, is Fly-by-night, or the Witch’s Flower, an incredibly rare flower that blooms every seven years. When Mary takes a hold of the flower, it releases magical powers and leads her on a magical adventure that exceeds her wildest dreams.

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The synopsis is quite vague but it is best to watch this film with very little prior knowledge of it. Does Mary and the Witch’s Flower live up to the standards of Studio Ghibli? It comes very close to it, but as a first entry for Studio Ponoc, it’s a huge success.

For a change of pace, let’s dwell with the negatives first, if you can call it that. The story is very familiar to casual audiences, since it is very reminiscent of the Harry Potter book, despite the fact the story is based on The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, a film that predates Harry Potter by about a quarter of a century. Where as the sci-fi angle of the film is quite reminiscent of Laputa: Castle in the Sky, with its terms of greed and lust for power and steampunk inspirations. Even the themes are reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki tropes, like environmental messages such as animal testing, the wide-eyed heroine, the same sense of wonder and others things.

Not only that, what can bother Ghibli fans is that the visuals and animation are very reminiscent of prior Ghibli films to the point that it sometimes looks recycled. One of the villains has roughly the same face as Kamaji, the boiler operator in Spirited Away, while a slimy creature in the film is reminiscent of No-Face in Spirited Away. And there’s also Mary’s climb up a scary cliff-side staircase and her visit to a house surrounded by water both closely evoke Spirited Away.

There are all sorts of familiar Ghibli images in Mary and the Witch’s Flower, from a character that resembles fire that recalls Calcifer in Howl’s Moving Castle to Mary’s broom-riding adventures and a black cat familiar, reminiscent of Kiki’s Delivery Service. Hell, there’s even a monster/vehicle that is eerily similar to the one in Laputa: Castle in the Sky. So if you’re expecting something new and out of the box from Studio Ponoc, chances are you’re going to be a bit disappointed.

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“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” seems to be the motto for Mary and the Witch’s Flower but thankfully all of the parts add up to a magical and fun time. The animation, character designs and the playful musical score by Muramatsu Takatsugu (however familiar they are) are stunning to behold, perfectly bouncing from serenity, fantasy and whimsy with ease. The opening prologue, which involves a daring escape via broomstick from shape-shifting minions, is absolutely thrilling and electrifying and hints of the many great things to come.

The character of Mary is very well-developed as she discovers the self-confidence and independence she will need to rely on in adulthood, throughout the film. She starts off as doubtful, as she faces moments about starting at a new school and her frizzy red hair and in the middle of the film, she turns brash and cocky with her newfound powers but at the end, her change in character feels earned and satisfying, without an ounce of sentimentality or forced emotion. While I’ve never read the source material, I’m sure it the female empowerment element was instilled there and director Hiromasa Yonebayashi and co-writer Riko Sakaguchi (who last co-wrote the Studio Ghibli film The Tale of Princess Kaguya) honoured it for the film.

The other characters like Great-Aunt Charlotte and Peter all compliment the film but the standout villains like Madam Mumblechook and Doctor Dee are both entertainingly menacing and yet, are realistically recognizable by their actions and ambitions driven by greed and lust for power. In fact, their actions are so recognizable, the film acknowledges both science and magic together, much like the collaborations of the characters, in a way that is quite refreshing.

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And let’s not forget the cast assembled for the English-language dub, which is very well done. Ruby Barnhill (who was great in Steven Spielberg‘s The BFG) is fantastic as Mary, as she expresses the growing confidence and inner turmoil of her character with ease, and even gets in on the Japanese mannerisms with aplomb. Kate Winslet does icy and posh really well as the villainess, Madam Mumblechook while Jim Broadbent is an over-the-top hoot as Doctor Dee, as he displays enthusiasm and liveliness that otherwise would’ve made a villain quite annoying.

Overall, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is basically a greatest hits album of Studio Ghibli tropes and elements, but it’s a very well-assembled one that proves if the formula ain’t broke, why bother fixing it? With astoundingly beautiful animation, a playful and lively musical score, an empowering heroine, fun and menacing villains and a fun story, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a great first entry for Studio Ponoc. Conjure up the next spell!

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic animation

The cast do great with their performances

Well-developed characters, particularly in the case of Mary

Retains the magic and spirit of Studio Ghibli entries

CONS

Similar to prior Ghibli entries the point of being derivative

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Ruby Barnhill, Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent, Lynda Baron, Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Ewen Bremner
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Screenwriters: Riko Sakaguchi, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, based on the book “The Little Broomstick” by Mary Stewart

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Movie Review – The Mountain Between Us

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EXPECTATIONS: Simple yet romantic survival story.

REVIEW:

WARNING: This review may contain heavy traces of cheese.

Before I start off this review, let me just make this one thing clear. I do like romantic films. This year alone, we have great films like Their Finest, The Big Sick, Our God’s Country and Call Me By Your Name. As much as I cannot stand overstated, implausible films of its ilk, I do understand why people do like them. It’s a fantasy and if there’s an audience for overstated, implausible action films, why can’t we have an audience for the former?

In the case of my expectations of The Mountain Between Us, they were kept in moderation. Having a romance set in a survival story is nothing new; especially when Kate Winslet is in one of the most popular films ever made about that, but it does lend a different twist to the genre and with director Hana Abal-Assad, Kate Winslet and Idris Elba on-board, it could be a worthwhile trip.

But the last romantic film I’ve seen with Winslet was the excremental Labor Day, a film so borderline moronic and illogical that it made me squeamish every time I looked at pies. But The Mountain Between Us can’t be as bad as that. Can it?

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The film starts off with Alex (Kate Winslet), a headstrong and reckless photojournalist who is rushing at the airport, struggling to get back to her fiance (human wardrobe Dermot Mulroney) on time for her wedding day. There she meets Ben (Idris Elba), a cautious, methodical surgeon who needs to get back home in time to initiate an emergency operation for a 10-year old boy.

Noticing the similar predicaments, Alex devises a solution and invites Ben to board a charter plane, with Walter (Beau Bridges) as the pilot and his pet dog as the co-pilot. As they are on the way home, the plane crashes in remote, snowy terrain. Having very little supplies and even less chance of help arriving, the two go on a perilous journey for survival, along with something more.

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Like preparing for a perilous journey, let’s start with the positives. The cinematography by fellow Australian Mandy Walker (who’s worked on a similar survival story Tracks, among others) is terrific. The million miles of pure-ass nature (a line in the film, believe it or not) are captured beautifully and makes it easy to believe that it would be a torture for anyone to trek through. Speaking of torture, the plane crash itself is very well-executed, as the editing is seamless as well as the special effects employed.

And like embracing death during the perilous journey, we get to the negatives, and there’s a mountain-load of them. The biggest one is the incredibly problematic and frankly cheesy script by Chris Weitz and J. Mills Goodloe. The willing suspension of disbelief was shaken as soon as I heard Beau Bridges‘ voice as Walter. No one in their right mind would believe that he would be in good health to fly a plane. And the fact that he didn’t devise a flight-plan beforehand was just a honking siren for danger. But wait, there’s more!

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How does the dog keep surviving the long journey through the snow without as much as an iota of frostbite? How does Alex’s leg lose swelling through the ice-cold journey? And what about Ben’s leg cut that bears no ill will to him whatsoever? And the list of unbelievable moments goes on and on and on. It’s almost as if the writers sprinkled Parmesan cheese all over it.

Speaking of unbelievable (and cheese), the dialogue is so laughable and out of this world that it would make the staff at Hallmark fall on the floor, laughing hysterically. With zingers like “I feel alive!”, “I need to occupy my amygdala” and “What about the heart?”, the film makes it head-bangingly obvious that the characters are different from each other. There’s even a moment where a recorder is used to communicate to the audience that Ben likes being in control.

And then there’s the cast. Despite the arctic setting, the only thing in the film that’s frozen is the chemistry between the two leads. They have absolutely no heat or believable passion that not even the cheese in the film can melt the ice. And what’s worse is that the transition from survival story to romantic tale is so mechanical that you can actually pinpoint the starting position where the romance starts (Minor spoiler: it’s when Alex pushes Ben to the ground).

Speaking of mechanical, the moments of tension and thrills in the film feel like they were just bolted in just in case the film lost the attention of the audience. It doesn’t help that the characters never really feel like they’re in real mortal danger. A cliff fall here, a water dive there,  a mountain lion from behind; the only reason that the audience would feel any sympathy for the characters is because they’re played by Kate Winslet and Idris Elba.

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Winslet is really trying her best in a difficult role, but she only ends up being difficult and really trying. Elba lends presence and credibility to the character of Ben but he could only take it so far, as the incredibly sloppy script is concerned. Funnily enough, the press notes actually say that Ben is smart as he is handsome. That basically sums up the effort that went to the script.

But even after all of that, that’s just the cheese of the stuffed crust. The last 20 minutes of the film is where the story basically turns into a tidal wave of cheese that would have swarm upon swarm of rats running in the cinema to jump on the screen. In other words, the supposed romantic tension, the awful dialogue and quite possibly the funniest final shot of the year cap the film not as a romantic drama, but a romantic comedy.

And just hypothetically speaking of the former, if you were to choose between an actor that acts like a tree (Dermot Mulroney) or an actor that is basically built like a tree (Idris Elba), who would you choose? That basically sums up the level of romantic tension in the film.

And as much as the critically acclaimed director Assad and leads Winslet and Elba can do with their efforts, the only thing between them and the audience is a mountain of cheese. With the script on top.

Quickie Review

PROS

The film looks nice

Actors do what they can

CONS

Clumsy script

Cheesiness that permeates throughout the film

Last 20 minutes are almost laugh-out-loud funny

SCORE: 3/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Kate Winslet, Idris Elba, Beau Bridges, Dermot Mulroney
Director: Hany Abu-Assad
Screenwriters: J. Mills Goodloe, Chris Weitz, based on the novel by Charles Martin