I suspect that the question “will there always be a Ghibli” keeps some people up at night. After all, Isao Takahata has passed away, and Miyazaki is working on what must surely be his final movie, unless of course he un-retires again after it so that some other people can make more documentaries about him. Hiromasa Yonebayashi must have once been seen as the hope of a new generation. 2010’s Secret World of Arrietty had been successful and promising, but then he went and co-founded another studio, called Ponoc, after his second Ghibli feature.
And what he took with him, I was disappointed to see, was basically a great big box of Ghibli tricks. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is basically what happens when you throw Totoro, Kiki, and Laputa in a blender and make the inside of Hogwarts from the Harry Potter movies look like Howl’s Moving Castle. When Mary tries mastering her broomstick, our son quietly said “This looks a lot like Kiki.” Visually, there’s not a single surprise in this movie, and the same goes for the script.
Ehhh, the kid was pleased. This is just a simple family adventure movie by the numbers, so just right for elementary and middle school-aged audiences. Strong teen girl protagonist, relative with a secret, magical world just on the other side of reality, danger that threatens our world, villains who talk too much, annoying boy who needs rescuing, merchandise-friendly animal familiar, you’ve seen it all before, although possibly not animated quite as well as this. It certainly looks like they spent millions on it to make it move and breathe with clarity, but the story’s so slight that I don’t imagine that our son will be in a big hurry to revisit it, or remember it very much down the line, when all the movies that are in this one’s DNA are crying out to be rewatched again instead.
On the other hand, I’ve got Howl’s Moving Castle on the calendar for the spring. Who knows, when we watch it, he may just quietly say “This looks a lot like Mary.”