More than a half-dozen key Ghibli creators team up for the first anime film from brand-new Studio Ponoc, but do they do their pedigree proud?

Studio Ghibli is dying.

The last film it released was 2014’s When Marnie Was There, production for which began before veteran director Hayao Miyazaki entered the latest of his many announced retirements. Following the release of Marnie, Ghibli went dormant, a status which lasted until Miyazaki recently decided that he doesn’t want to retire yet after all, and so Ghibli has fired up its engine again for his latest vision.

But eventually Miyazaki will no longer be able to continue being the Lazarus of Japanese animation, and when that time comes it seems pretty clear that Ghibli isn’t going to be interested in having anyone else hold the reins. Hands-on visionary Miyazaki may be, other talented people have also played important roles in the creation of Ghibli’s films, and many of them now find themselves at Studio Ponoc, which has just released its first feature film, Mary and the Witch’s Flower.

Studio Ponoc’s cinematic legacy is born in fire, as the film opens with a young woman escaping from a burning magical laboratory with some sort of stolen item. Pursued by uniformed guards, she hops on a broom and flies away, and almost immediately Ponoc’s lineage is apparent. The guards’ arms stretch, transforming into gelatinous fish-like creatures reminiscent of some of the more surreal sea life from Ghibli’s Ponyo. The girl’s posture as she hunkers down on the broom resembles that of the star of Kiki’s Delivery Service, as does the sequence where she plummets to the earth. When the contents of her bag spill onto the grass and cause vines and trees to begin growing with supernatural speed, it’s hard not to think of the moonlit seed-planting scene from My Neighbor Totoro.

Some of the similarities are striking enough to feel like overt homages, which isn’t all that surprising considering how many Ghibli alumni are involved. Aside from director Hiromasa Yonebayashi (director of Marnie and The Secret World of Arrietty) and producer Yoshiaki Nishimura (producer for Marnie and co-producer for The Tale of the Princess Kaguya), Mary’s scriptwriter, animation director, art director, composer, and sound director all have Ghibli credits on their resumes. Even the Studio Ponoc logo that appears at the beginning of the film, with Mary looking to the left in profile, is reminiscent of the image of Totoro that’s shown before Ghibli movies begin.

The action-packed opening may come as a surprise, given the leisurely pace of Marnie and Arrietty. As a matter of fact, the script (co-written by Yonebayashi and Riko Sakaguchi) in general feels more tightly paced than many recent Ghibli films. Once the escape sequence ends, we’re introduced to Mary, a good-natured and helpful child who’s arrived in at her great aunt’s house a few weeks before starting a new school in the rural community. With time to kill before classes start, she follows a black cat into the forest on a whim, finding a mysteriously beautiful flower that hides a frighteningly powerful strain of magic. From that point, each scene serves to advance the story, with little in the way of the meandering that Ghibli has occasionally indulged in, and Mary’s chance discovery sets off a chain of events that has her traveling to a school for budding witches, where she’s welcomed after showing more spellcraft aptitude than is wise, which ends up having life-threatening implications.

As the story is moving along, the characters themselves are moving with beautifully expressive animation. While the countryside setting of much of the movie doesn’t allow for large crowd shots, in the handful of times when many people are on-screen simultaneously, the animators make sure just about everyone is given something to do. Some of the most impressive sequences showcase a pack of wild animals, with the movements of each alpaca, rhino, and turtle drawn differently from the other species’. Once again, long-time Ghibli fans will notice certain tricks the animators picked up at their former home, such as when Mary’s hair levitates to show agitation, or when she rides a deer bareback like Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke.

In contrast to the misty, subdued hues of Marnie, Yonebayashi’s new film makes use of lush colors, especially when Mary flies through the pink-orange sky at sunset or travels to a school for budding magicians, concealed in the middle of a Laputa-like column of clouds. The design of the school, its headmistress, and cybernetic research scientist all blend intriguingly mysterious and unsettlingly foreboding elements, which to many viewers will feel somewhat akin to Spirited Away.

While the front-and-center characters and their actions are all capable of commanding your attention, you’ll want to let your eyes wander over the amazingly detailed background art as well. It’s so good that at times you might find yourself wishing the characters would step aside for a moment and give you an unobstructed view, and if a Mary and the Witch’s Flower art book is in the works, the backgrounds will be a joy to pore over in printed form.

In what’s become largely the norm for prestige anime films, the voice cast primarily draws from live-action as opposed to dedicated voice actors, although Peter, the first peer Mary meets in her new town, is voiced by Ryunosuke Kamiki, who in addition to live-action roles has a handful of anime credits to his name, including Your Name and Summer Wars leading men Taki and Kenji. The score, from Takatsugu Muramatsu (composer for Marnie) is used sparingly, with the haunting notes heard in the trailer and opening escape sequence the most memorable piece. On the other hand, less music gives sound director Koji Kasamatsu (who previously worked on Marnie and The Wind Rises) more aural space to work with, and he does an excellent job, with each footstep punctuated with the echo of wood flooring, shuffle of gravel, or scraping of stone, which along with the gorgeous background art helps establish a strong sense of place for each location shown.

But while the artistry is consistently impressive, it’s not quite perfect. Characters look great in motion, but they’re sometimes posed awkwardly when standing still. Eyes have a momentary flatness to them on occasion, and some of the characters are given distractingly tall foreheads.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower is also a pretty light meal in terms of thematic statements to chew on. While Mary herself at one point says she’d like to transform into someone else because she feels self-conscious about her red hair, the attempt to tie that into the question of whether or not she should rely on her newfound magical powers doesn’t really work, given that she expresses her wish in only an offhand manner, and before she learns about the existence of magic, no less.

As such, Mary largely has to get by on the appeal of its characters and story. Thankfully, Mary herself remains likeable throughout almost all of the film (compared to Marnie’s Anna, Mary displays less of a tendency to lash out at others in anger, making her an easier protagonist to cheer for), and while she may not have much in terms of a psychological character arc, the trajectory of the story, along with its momentum, are enough to make the film a rewarding watch.

To make one final Ghibli parallel, Mary feels a little like Laputa, in that they’re both self-contained adventure stories that steadily build to a climactic confrontation against clear antagonists. Considering that Laputa was the first film released after the official formation of Studio Ghibli, Mary and the Witch’s Flower seems like a fine starting point for Studio Ponoc.

Images: YouTube/Studio Ponoc /スタジオポノック

Follow Casey on Twitter, where he’d like to thank his dad for taking him to see Silent Mobius on the big screen when he was a kid.