Nostalgia isn’t entirely unlike a rose, grab it too tightly and you’ll prick yourself on its many barbs, and its plucked beauty will fade and sour. Instead a good creator knows the tenuous nature of a beloved past, and treats nostalgia with an appropriate delicacy. This is how director Hiromasa Yonebayashi presents ‘Mary and the Witch’s Flower’, the debut feature of Studio Ponoc, as a respectful homage to his past; but more importantly an exciting promise of the future. Studio Ponoc was founded by Yonebayashi and long-time Ghibli producer Yoshiaki Nishimura, and was seen as somewhat of a life raft to many disenfranchised employees of a directionless Studio Ghibli. Hayao Miyazaki is famous for announcing his retirement and then coming back for one more feature, and in 2013, talking about his new film ‘The Wind Rises’, Miyazaki once again spoke of the end of his career: “I know I’ve said I would retire many times in the past, many of you must think ‘once again’, but this time I’m quite serious”. He has since come out of retirement two more times for ‘Boro the Caterpillar’ and ‘How do You Live’ respectively. This is of course fantastic news for fans of his phenomenal portfolio, but it’s been a tumultuous few years for the beloved animation house, who for a while simply stopped making movies. Indeed. The studio hasn’t released a feature film of their own since 2014’s ‘When Marnie Was There’, which was directed by Yonebayashi himself – making this Ghibli’s longest break between releases since the founding of the studio. It’s unsurprising then, that as the company struggled to find a direction in those Miyazaki-less moments Yonebayashi and Nishimura took matters into their own hands, and it speaks volumes to the artistic urge to create that so many Ghibli staffers followed them to Studio Ponoc. ‘Mary and the Witch’s Flower’ is a faithful adaptation of Mary Stewart’s book The Little Broomstick, about a girl who is whisked away to a magical Academy for young witches and warlocks. Mary is a bored girl in an empty house itching for something to happen. While she’s a stereotypical protagonists in the same vein as a long line of Ghibli leads, you can’t help but feel Mary succinctly captures Studio Ponoc’s own origin story; bored and waiting for something to happen before finally making something happen for themselves. And the analogy doesn’t stop there, mistaken for a new student, Mary is forced to fake it until she makes it, and watching her stumble through classes and accidentally impress her teachers is a telling joy as Ponoc themselves find their footing as an animation house. In a fascinating interview with The Verge Nishimura commented that Miyazaki and fellow figurehead Isao Takahata were making significantly different movies compared to when they first started out; where once they had made films of lively people meeting for the first time, they now focused on stories of people parting, of saying goodbye. It’s an understandable evolution, but Nishimura wanted to move away from goodbyes. And once again say hello in the movies he made. He wanted to direct the type of movies Studio Ghibli had earned their name making. As much as I loved ‘Princess Kaguya’ and ‘The Wind Rises’, I too longed for the nostalgia of Studio Ghibli early years of the fantasy films that I’d fallen for decades ago and I was immediately hooked when Mary, for the first time, flies from the earth leaving all that is mundane and normal below and races towards a world dripping with imagination. So, Mary and the Witch’s Flower certainly has the look, the lead and the love such a production warrants, but somehow their comforting presence leaves you a little discomforted by the time the credits roll. At first blush, Ponoc’s debut feature can feel like a shameless knockoff, but it’s an unfair complaint to level at someone who has been animating, directing and learning in the house of Ghibli for the last two decades. To expect to Yonebayashi to change now is unrealistic. That said you can’t help but feel that Yonebayashi grabbed the flower of nostalgia a little too hard with Mary, with proceedings becoming overly referential – or reverential – here. It’s full of homage is to numerous Ghibli greats, including ‘Spirited Away’ ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ ‘Princess Mononoke’, and of course ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’, and while some of these are likely coincidences, there’s enough to verge on actual theft not unlike Mary’s actions throughout the film. That’s stealing Mary! Despite this it’s still a tremendous picture from a clearly talented director and the studio behind him, full of funny beats and a story that despite plenty of visual similarities distances herself from the more melancholy vibes of Kiki’s Delivery Service, similarities that had me worried before release. refreshingly Mary is somewhat of an anti Kiki, bullheaded, unflappable, and single-minded. Though the two do share a hilariously clumsy streak. The problem with nostalgia is it’s often only skin-deep, once you peel away the immediate gratification of something warm and familiar, there’s usually little of substance under the surface. Whilst Mary and the Witch’s Flower can feel a little unoriginal at times, however, it’s a welcome return to form where it counts. Mary is a statement of intent for Ponoc, with its abundance of imaginative imagery and beautiful animation it feels like the studio is trying to assuage any doubts about their pedigree, and their fantasy worlds look to prove their intended course. It refuses to buckle under the weight of expectation, and sets a precedent for the fresh-faced Studio Ponoc. Here are a group of talented individuals with the experience, the know-how and most of all the heart to make the sort of film that had largely disappeared in recent years. If Mary is Ponoc’s hello to all of us, then I can’t wait to see where this conversation leads. As always thanks for watching. I had a whole heap of fun putting this one together and Want to thank everyone who helped shape the script over on the Beyond Ghibli Discord. I have another shorter project coming whilst I work on my next big video and if you want to help decide what that might be Head over to the Patreon, and have your say in the upcoming poll. If instead you think I should do another video on Mary, only this time not say the word ‘Ghibli’ once Hit the like button and I’ll attempt that utterly impossible task.