Tag Archives: animation

Film review: Mary and the Witch’s Flower

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I have a confession to make. I have only seen one – count ’em! – Studio Ghibli film. It’s the one everyone has seen (no, not that one with the friendly cat Moomin, the other one with the pigs). And I liked it! Well, it scared me a little but that’s not necessarily a bad thing and I really enjoyed it. I would absolutely watch more. I will. I just… haven’t yet.

I begin with this so that you can understand I don’t carry any reverential baggage into a film like Mary and the Witch’s Flower, made by Studio Ponoc – which is largely people from Ghibli, making films, as I understand it, in the spirit of Ghibli. To put it another way, I watched it as though walking into a superhero sequel with no context, no trailers and a vague awareness that Stan Lee exists.

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In that vein, I know that there’s something of a tradition of fusing a Japanese take on animation and storytelling with classic British stories. In this case, Mary is an adaptation of The Little Broomstick, helmed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (When Marnie Was There, Arietty)It tells the story of bright, curious Mary (in the UK dub, Ruby Barnhill of The BFG), who arrives at her aunt’s rural house ahead of her parents and is a trapped, bored ball of energy as she explores the countryside waiting for excitement to happen. In her wanderings she comes across a pair of intriguing cats and their owner, Peter, who teases her about her wild, red hair. She also encounters the beautiful fly-by-night plant, and an old broom – and it’s when the two collide and the berries from the plant burst on the broom’s handle that she is literally thrown into an extraordinary other world. One which might just have a little more danger beneath the surface than she realises…

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Mary is a gorgeously hand-drawn charmer, which somehow marries an overall gentleness with enough unexpected twists and turns to keep the attention of viewers of all ages. If adults get a little itchy at Mary’s rather flat character development and the slightly stilted screenplay, they will still be cheering on the inside at having a bossy, headstrong girl in the main role. And indeed, this is a very female film. When Mary is whisked away to a magical school – to my eyes, what Albus Dumbledore might have created with Willy Wonka – it is formidable headmistress Madam Mumblechook (Kate Winslet) who stamps her presence in every corner and beguiles the young, accidental witch. And when Mumblechook’s bizarre and disturbing secret is revealed, the power to either save the day or allow certain destruction is held in both their hands – and it’s down to the strength of their characters to decide which will win out. In the meantime, Mary’s Great Aunt Charlotte provides a much-needed north star for the troubled child.

Despite touching on themes of loneliness, isolation and, er, animal and human experimentation, the pace, tone and style of Mary is such that children of virtually any age could and would be absorbed by it. Muramatsu Takatsugu (When Marnie Was There) provides a beautiful, stirring score, which harmonises with the striking visuals to give what could be a very simple story depth.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower is now on general release in the UK.

Disclosure: My thanks to DDR PR for the opportunity to see the film before release. All opinions are my own. 

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Ten Days of Disney: Alan Menken & Howard Ashman

I’m on the countdown to my holiday  – well, belated honeymoon – to Walt Disney World and thus everything else has disappeared from my mind. Actually, that’s not at all true. I still intend to blog about a whole host of things since I’ve made a little progress on the Grown Up Monster Book and there are some exciting things happening in the world world of social media.

But, in the meantime, forgive me if pick a different thing every day for ten days that I love about Disney. It’ll take my mind off how much I freakin’ hate flying, to use some US terminology that seems appropriate.

So, day one, obviously: Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.

When I was a child, The Aristocats was my favourite film. It’s still one of my favourite films; I was walking down Shaftesbury Avenue the other day with Ashley and could be overheard explaining “no, it’s Abraham DeLacey…”. Still, despite that fondness and regular viewings of Snow White, 101 Dalmatians and The Fox and the Hound, I was still a middling fan of the films in my early youth. From my first visits at four and five years old, I was a major obsessive when it came to the parks but the films were a bit hit and miss for my liking.

And then there was The Little Mermaid. As it transpired in later life I would go on to love some of Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman’s other work – namely Little Shop of Horrors – too. But somehow, coupled with a new Disney zeal for making not just pretty and child-friendly but once again groundbreaking animation (though in fairness I didn’t realise that as a nine-year-old), it made me into a Mouse evangelist overnight.

The Little Mermaid marked a post-Oliver and Company new dawn of Disney animation. The films became more complex and adult-friendly. They took on the feel of Broadway musicals again in a way that seemed to have been lost after complete joy that is The Jungle Book and the heyday of the simply magical Sherman brothers. The journey that would lead to the adoption of Pixar and animated movies that are now just good films that also raise the bar for hand-drawn and digital artistry had begun.

The music was a huge part of that. My friend Lizzie and I, giggling pre-teens, would sing the songs from The Little Mermaid all day long if we had the chance. She’s now throwing a Little Mermaid-themed hen do for another friend, and it’s definitely the theme of the film, not just the story. The lyrics were witty, the tunes relentlessly hummable and, occasionally, heartbreaking. At university, I attended an audition for a musical to support a friend and the first thing she pounced on in the whole list of possible audition songs was Part of Your World.

Things actually improved from there, impossible as it seemed. Beauty and the Beast was an extraodinary achievement, and the music was a huge and very prominent part of that. The powerhouse continued on to Aladdin before Ashman finally succumbed to illness, leaving Menken to complete the music with famous Lloyd-Webber lyricist Tim Rice. Ashman was, to me, a huge loss. When I heard what had happened I found myself crying over a man I’d never met and didn’t know simply because I was so impressed by his work – surely the way an artist wants to be mourned? Despite Rice’s immense talent and Menken’s continuing brilliance, it’s all too easy to tell which songs were primarily Ashman’s work (A Friend Like Me, Arabian Nights) and which mostly Rice (A Whole New World, which leaves me rather cold).

Since then, Disney’s taken a typically inventive attitude to soundtracks, with a combination of using old favourites like Menken and partnerships with pop stars like Phil Collins (Tarzan). No matter how good, I don’t believe they’ll ever sound as good as the glory days to me, but with my DVDs at my disposal, what does that matter?