Inclusion in Pixar

As the spotlight intensifies around diversity in Hollywood, how does the critical examination of diversity and inclusivity carry over to animation? Have studios like Pixar evolved to represent inclusivity- both on-screen and off? An examination of Pixar’s journey indicates, despite improvement, Pixar has a long way to go.

Looking at Pixar’s roster of films, Pixar appears to experience a clear wave of progressivism around 2008 with the start of production on Brave. Brave, which premiered in 2012,  was Pixar’s 13th movie and first to feature a female protagonist and female co-director. Since Pixar’s first film in 1995, Toy Story, Pixar featured mostly male protagonists. With the mother-daughter relationship a central theme, Brave demonstrates a considerable movement away from traditional stories of male heroes.

While Brave demonstrated some amount of forward movement, off-screen drama indicated otherwise when Brenda Chapman was removed from the project mid-way through production.  While Chapman, who also wrote and conceived the film signed on to direct in 2010, she was later replaced with white male director, Mark Andrews. Though it is unclear why she was removed from the project, she later released a statement that she was heartbroken to be separated from her story and replaced with a male voice.

This is not the only example of contention between Pixar and its female workforce. Last year, Rashida Jones and her writing partner jumped ship on Toy Story 4, citing Pixar’s inability to provide a workplace “where women and people of color [have an] equal creative voice” as the principal issue. This move seemingly coincided with commotion surrounding the workplace conduct of John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer of Disney Animation and Pixar. Lasseter, whose workplace behaviour has come into question after numerous accounts of inappropriate advances, announced a six month sabbatical in response to questions of his character. Pixar has not yet attempted another film with a woman director or a film with a sole protagonist that is female.

In terms of racial and cultural diversity, Pixar has had a slightly less tumultuous journey. Three years after the release of Brave, Pixar released The Good Dinosaur, the first Pixar film directed by a person of color. Their most recent release of Coco represents the first Pixar film with a protagonist of color.

This said, compared to Walt Disney Animation, these numbers are pitiful. Admittedly, in general, comparing the two can be a futile task given that WDA was established long before Pixar, giving it more financial and reputational freedom to explore different perspectives. This said, I feel it’s worth noting, that since 1995 (the release of the first Pixar film), WDA has released 4 movies with protagonists of color and 8 movies with female protagonists. While there are certainly caveats and asterisks to these numbers (while they do depict women and people of color- how they depict them is another story), it seems Walt Disney Animation has had little trouble at least attempting to depict diverse perspectives on screen.

So where does that leave us, has Pixar been making gains in terms of diversity? Kind of? Sort of? While they’ve made some progress, it seems they’ve had little success making Pixar burgeoning space of creativity for POC and women both on and off screen.

Casting Call

A major studio executive goes to the casting director and says, “Give the role to someone who deserves it the most.” Sounds like an utopian world. But let’s deconstruct this. Who is it that actually deserves it? A person who has the look or the talent, perhaps both? Or a person who represents the character in the actual life itself. Let’s think together.

The Stale “APU”

The documentary, “The Problem with Apu” starring Hari Kondabolu strengthened my formulated views on the crisis that is going on in this country. In the show, Apu is an Indian American who is voiced by Hank Azaria. Hank is a caucasian American who voices an Indian. Yes, you heard that right. He voices him in a wrongfully manner. Some people say that he has stereotyped him. But I will tell you the truth what actually is the case. What is the definition of a stereotype – “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing” Now let’s examine this, a stereotype would be an imaginative perspective. Thus, people make arguments such as it is indeed our right to imagine so we shall go ahead and imagine what we feel like. But will tell you in the Simpsons, Apu is not stereotyped, they view Indians in that position because they always have and they have been given the power to and also because it’s convenient. Not anymore. We shall not take this. Hank copied this accent from the movie The Party made in 1968. It is complete misrepresentation of the Indian accent. No Indian speaks like that. I can’t as well even if I tried. It’s unnatural and eerie so say the very least.

Let’s Talk About Isle of the Dogs

There have been a lot of buzz the past couple of years about how Hollywood likes to westernize many cultures, especially the Asian ones. Ever since Ghost in the Shell starring Scarlett Johansson, with her playing a character of Japanese descent came out in theatres, many voices spoke out about “white-washing” in Hollywood. For those of you who do not know what white-washing is, in definition, “A term that now has also come to refer to the entertainment industry’s attempt at making ethnic characters more appealing to the white, money-spending masses by making exotic characters less ethnic and more ‘white’”.

Very recently a new movie came out that is set in “Futuristic Japan” that is under threat of dog influenza. This movie, directed by Wes Anderson is called Isle of the Dogs or 犬ヶ島 in Japanese.

Isle of the Dogs

Although I have yet to see the movie, it’s already a given that the movie embodies the magic of Fantastic Mr. Fox with stop-motion animation as the choice of media.

It’s also easy to see that this movie is created from the eyes of a Westerner.

Here is an example of the “Futuristic Japan” that Anderson imagined.

A city in Japan created by Wes Anderson

The mountain to the left is a mountain that most likely a weird version of Mt. Fuji (and I must add, a mountain that I grew up looking at) in the background of a city that most likely resembles Tokyo.

Just by looking at the snippet of this film, we see a film that was created with a sense of awe and wonder that many Westerners have and hold towards Japan. With a temple type architecture in the center, with an iconic mountain in the backdrop. Anderson himself was inspired to create this specific film with the influence of Miyazaki Hayao, Kurosawa Akira and many other great filmmakers who lead the cinematic industry in Japan.

However, looking at this picture with the perspective from a culturally Japanese person, it’s pretty insulting to see the deformed Mt. Fuji in the backdrop with a building that is obviously a type of architecture that does not, by all means, be a building that would be built in future Japan.

For some reason, Anderson thought it was ok to play around with a culture that is other than his, and recreated important symbols and icons (that the nation prides in) to fit into his movie. He’s not the only one who has done something like. On a side note, there are other films that convey inaccuracy considering Japanese cultures, like Kubo and the Two Strings. What is it with people who want to create animated films set in Japan but just doesn’t get the culture? It’s a mystery to me.

I would say to stick with what you know. It’s probably a safe way to go without insulting a culture and, most likely, having a lot more authenticity and heart behind it all. At least Anderson chose the theme of a boy and his dog, which is quite universal and relatable. It just so happens to be set in Japan.

Looking back to other Anderson films, this could have been a creative move for him, but when a white Director decides to make a “creative choice” and includes things that may seem exotic (like Asian cultures) without really understanding and feeling the essence of it, that’s when a culture becomes inferior.

There’s this thing that I’ve noticed about Japanese culture ever since I can remember. They idolize white people and make them extremely superior. They love pleasing them. So, if some Westerner decides to play around with the culture, they will not say anything! In the Japanese trailer for this film, they say “ウェスアンダーソンが日本への愛を込めて贈る…” which translates to “Wes Anderson sending his love for Japan” with the film. Yes, this is most likely true, but it’s also most likely that Japan will not admit to the inaccuracy of this film. It’s hard to really say the truth in this context, right?

Anderson made one good move with bringing in an actual Japanese person, Kunichi Nomura, to keep some sense of authenticity in the film. Unfortunately, even with that move, the film seems far from the Japan I grew up in.

It’s tough to say what’s right and what’s wrong in art. People should have the freedom to create. It’s just infuriating to see the same thing happen over and over again with cultures being high jacked by white directors for the sake of entertainment.

So, what is the solution? Well, there are many, but maybe sensitivity is a start. Maybe bringing in more Japanese cast to voice primary characters. Maybe it’ll be good to put subtitles when a character speaks Japanese instead of letting the audience guess what’s being said. Bring in someone who is from a specific culture into directing. Hell, bring in someone who will fight to make things correct.

Diversity: The New Competitive Edge of Movies and TV

Image result for diversity movies

Times are changing, and none believe that statement more than those who create and oversee movies and television shows. Many people have made a shift from movies to television in recent years and there can be many reasons this move may occurred. I believe that one of the most important factors that caused this shift is the incredible differences in diversity and quality in television that is just not present in movies.

Diversity defines the United States as it is proudly described as the Melting Pot of the world. However, movies seem to ignore this title as Hollywood holds the notorious reputation of being extremely focused on representing people of European decent as the forefront and other cultures and races as mere tools that progress the white characters through their story. As the demographic of America shifts to include growing numbers of people of color, it would make sense that Hollywood make moves to increase the role of people of color in leading acting roles on screen and in creative positions behind the scenes.  However, it does not seem that Hollywood is taking these changes seriously.

Historically, the response from Hollywood for such a lack of diversity is that having a diverse cast was simply not profitable. However, this is no longer a viable argument considering the success of recent films featuring people of color. Get Out was the highest earning movie of 2017, Girls Trip was the most profitable comedy of 2017, and Black Panther recently crossed the 1 billion dollar profit mark, making it one of the most successful additions to the Marvel universe. However, despite the success of these films, Hollywood still seems adamant in maintaining its traditional path towards straight white male protagonists.

Television on the other hand has a much better standing in terms of diversity both in the shows and on creative teams. Animation in particular seems to be paving the way for diversity in entertainment. TV shows such as the Loud House and Steven Universe have received praise and recognition for inspiring inclusiveness in the characters and story. The Loud House, an animated show by Nickelodeon, has an African American character that has gay fathers. Steven Universe is known for being raised by three females and also shows the importance of body acceptance and identification fluidity.

Television geared towards older populations also lean towards diversity. Shows such as “Black-ish” and “Fresh off the Boat” depict the average lives of people of color without using stereotypes like Hollywood movies seem to do. The popularity of Netflix shows and streaming also seem to be connected to the site’s diverse selections. Netflix is mostly notable for its section that is completely dedicated to movies and shows that focus on LGBTQ characters and stories.

With Netflix and other streaming sites as well as regular television taking audiences out of theaters in droves, it would make sense that Hollywood gets the hint about the positive effects, both economic and social, that diversity has on the entertainment industry.

Middle Eastern/Arab Stereotypes in Animation

Does animation accurately depict Middle Eastern culture? The answer is a resounding no. Endless expanses of sand dune, primitive camel transportation, mysterious belly dancing women, violent characters with with harsh features- these are the images most often used to depict Middle Eastern culture in animation. To say that these images depict reality would be an egregious misstatement. 

 When discussing Middle Eastern stereotypes in animation, it is impossible NOT to discuss the controversial behemoth that is Aladdin. From start to finish, Aladdin is riddled with Middle Eastern stereotypes – as a result, I’d like to use it as a compass to tackle Middle Eastern stereotypes in animation.  Let’s get started:

Before I get into specifics, I’d like to address two overarching themes in this film that are also present in other films with Middle Eastern content.  Firstly, despite the fact that the Aladdin takes place in an Arab setting- they constantly conflate Arabic and Indian culture (with large Taj Mahal like structures, certain Indian accents, and Indian clothing).  Secondly, Aladdin, alongside a lot of other films, plays super hard into the idea of “the Orient:” a far away mysterious place whose interest and novelty stems from the culture’s foreign strangeness.   It should be noted that, among many other reasons,  this is dangerous as it dehumanizes and demeans Middle Eastern culture.

As I mentioned previously, from start to finish Aladdin employs Middle Eastern stereotypes to tell its story. Aladdin begins with probably the most prevalent Middle Eastern stereotype: the never-ending stretches of desert and sand mountain. While not all Middle Eastern people live amidst desolate mountains of sand, we see this time and time again in works as recent as Aladdin and as old as the 1968 stop-motion film The Little Drummer Boy.

Even before a character is presented on screen, we are offered an introduction Aladdin’s Middle Eastern setting through a song with the lyrics:

Oh I come from a land, from a faraway place

Where the caravan camels roam

Where they cut off your ear

If they don’t like your face

It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home

Right off the bat, these lyrics characterize Arabs as brute-ish and “barbaric.” The most alarming of the lyrics, lines 3 and 4, extoll a sense of hostility which foments the idea of Arabs as upside down dangerous and violent people.  While these lines were later removed in the DVD version of the movie in 1996, these lines still played on theatre screens and TVs for four years.

This is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the most damaging Middle Eastern stereotype across media- Middle Easterners as violent savages. The modern interpretation is, of course, most jarring with its depiction of Arabs and Muslims as terrorists. The 2013 Family Guy episode, “Peter Becomes a Muslim” proved a particularly potent example as it began (seemingly) attempting to somewhat shatter the stereotype in question as Peter befriends a Muslim man. The episode is completely turned on its head when Peter’s friend is actually a radical terrorist. The message of the episode conveys that all Arabs are indeed terrorists (amidst other offensive statements made toward or about the Middle East). A similar message exists within the South Park franchise where the “Arab terrorist” has been a character a multitude of times and the one Arab character is constantly undersuspcion of being a terrorist.

Arabs as violent is a theme present in more dated childrens’ animation as well. A common Arab stereotype in animation is the brute-ish soldier with the curved sword who appears ruthless and easily moved to violence. Here he is in Aladdin, where they attempt to kill Aladdin for stealing some bread (and will later attempt to chop off the Jasmine’s hand for stealing an apple):

Here he is again in The Little Drummer Boy 2 seconds before killing the boy’s parents:

And here he is a third time in Scooby Doo’s Arabian Nights:

You get the gist. 

These harsh hostile characters are usually juxtaposed against more western (and “coincidentally” kinder, gentler, and more human) characters and ultimately portray Middle Easterners as brutal, murderous, and callous.  

Also present in the first 5 minutes of Aladdin, is the stereotype of the haggler- the money-grubbing street merchant  easily willing to sacrifice his humanity for financial gain. Poster child examples include: the man who kidnaps the Little Drummer Boy to capitalize on his drumming skills, the haggler at the start of Aladdin and the various hagglers throughout the entire film, and the large multitude of characters in Arabian Knight who seek  exclusively financial gain.

In all, there seems to be a STRONG correlation between Arabs and nefarious financial objectives, as  evidenced by the “treasure” winnings of most movies with Middle Eastern characters. Jafar, the villain in Aladdin, is driven to very evil extents for the sake of wealth and power. It should also be noted that of  all of the characters in Aladdin, Jafar is the darkest skinned and looks the least western (and most Arab).

While there are tons of other stereotypes evident in Aladdin and other relevant work, the last one I’d like to address is the mysterious belly-dancer.  While we all love Princess Jasmine (and she is, in many ways, a strong female character), the mysterious, often-veiled, bellydancing seductress is a common Middle Eastern movie trope which demeans the diversity of female Middle Eastern women and also seems to conflate Indian and Middle Eastern female fashion.  Even in Aladdin, most of these mysterious seductresses are, to some extent, objectified and made into an exotic trophy.  In fact, the entire plot of Scooby Doo Arabian Nights, is that Shaggy and Scooby go in disguise as an Arab woman and are accidentally selected to be the bride of a greedy prince. According to the film, princes can marry anyone they want (against their will) and have as many wives as they please. 

While I could continue to list more examples of Middle Eastern stereotypes, hopefully this provided a good overview.  Moving forward it would be incredible to see Middle Easterners portrayed in animation with the same care and sensitivity we have seen with other diverse initiatives. Will we get it soon? Given the current political climate, I dont think so. But here’s to being hopeful!

Asian-American Representation in Cartoons

Animation and specifically cartoons are central in the youths of most American people. It is not only what we all looked to for entertainment in our younger years, but an essential tool in our developments. How many times can you remember watching one of your favorite cartoons as a child and not understanding something discussed or shown in the episode? Wanting to learn the meaning, we go to our parents and ask what was meant by its inclusion in the story. It is moments like this that show the media we consume as children can greatly influence and shape our understandings and future outlooks on the world.

Being a male who was raised in the United States, it’s needless to say that I grew up on cartoons. Much of my childhood revolved around the characters of animated shows on Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and Disney. However, I am also an Asian-American male. For much of my youth, I noticed similarities between all of casts of characters in the shows I would watch; they all looked the same. In other words, they were mostly white. At the time it wasn’t something that particularly bothered me, but it was something I noticed. When you’re a child being partially influenced by the media you’re taking in, you want to feel represented in some way.

That’s not to say that Asians aren’t totally undepicted in American cartoons. It’s just that when they do appear, being Asian is usually their entire identity. Some shows such as Jackie Chan Adventures and American Dragon: Jake Long were shows with Asian protagonists. The only catch was that the entire premises of those cartoons revolved around the fact that the characters were Asian and had martial arts backgrounds. While that is by no means a negative thing, it feels like a veiled form of the idea of tokenism. It was rare to see a character in an animated program that was a normal character, unaffected by the fact that they happened to be Asian.

As for where this phenomena can become dangerous and problematic, it can be traced back to the earlier idea of cartoons being a significant influence on children’s development. When children watch these cartoons that do happen to portray Asian culture in the ways that the shows previously described do, it can cause them to pigeonhole what an entire culture does as a whole. In addition to that, it can also have negative effects on the actual Asian and Asian-American children who are viewing these programs and are still in the early influential stages of their childhoods. It supports the idea that their race and in this case Asian is the sole facet of their identity that defines them. Not seeing an animated character that looks like you sounds like an innocent enough problem initially, but when considering the cultural impact of this on a young and very impressionable mind, it runs the risk of giving the wrong information to them.

Cartoons targeted for a younger audience are extremely significant in their developments into adolescence and adulthood. Taking this into consideration, the creators of these programs should be mindful of the representations of not just Asian-Americans, but all races. We don’t want kids to come away thinking that their race is the only thing that defines them as people.


Kung Fu Panda’s Negative Impact on the Chinese Culture

Action-packed choreography, fun characters, and beautiful scenery are commonly enjoyed and found throughout martial arts films. Since the transnational introduction of Bruce Lee’s lively Hong Kong films followed by Jackie Chan and his action comedies, the film world has taken a vivid fascination towards wuxia acrobatic/stunt heavy productions. Thus live action and animated films alike, fight sequences have become widely used for engaging storytelling in a widespread of genres. The Kung Fu Panda series, produced by Dreamworks Animation, a 3D animated action comedy martial arts film, is an example that was influenced by Chinese culture and wuxia martial arts films.

Having a budget of about $130 million USD, the first Kung Fu Panda came out in 2008 and was a national success, topping the box office opening weekend with $60.2 million, and a box office totalling over $631.7million. The film itself was also very well received in China, becoming the first animated film in China to earn more than 100 million yuan.

An American published film by American creators of Chinese culture, which was well received by both the US market as well as its international markets, especially the Chinese market, the origin of its influences. A great movie with great success, wouldn’t you think so? Yet as you may see, this post is about how the series has negatively impacted the Chinese culture. More specifically, its major role in setting China on its path to becoming a major player in becoming the next target of the film industry.

Upon its major commercial success in China, it led to a lot of national introspection from commentators and critics as to why such a film as KFP was not produced in China itself, as it was a film about its very culture and was popularly received by the international world. We can answer this by looking at how the Chinese government is structured with its peculiar restrictions of how their country is represented, as well as not enough budget nor resources to pull off such a production.

As a Chinese-American growing up in the US country brought up with a conservative traditional Chinese upbringing, it is rather second-nature to be able to recognize Chinese culture and link medias to its corresponding influences. Similarly is it easy to recognize the vast amounts of international influences the Western market has in China and its fashion, films, and entertainment industry. Watching the Chinese market grow increasingly fascinated with the “American dream” and the “successful Americans” has pivoted majority of the nation into becoming obsessed with speaking English, consuming American and Western content, and essentially be seen as hip and cool as a “Westernized” person (and I use “Western” to define any culture outside of the China and Southeast Asia). The obsessive fascination has led to increasingly messy markets of piracy, illegal, and other off-brand content of copyrighted materials.

It becomes a frenzy to make money off of Western content. When KFP became popular, the iconization of pandas became a trademark image of “Chinese culture,” further imprinting pandas into become “Chinese.” The 2008 Beijing Olympics character JingJing resembles a panda, and became one of the most popular characters during the Olympics both nationally and overseas, second to red character HuanHuan, the most featured character due to China’s preference to its national color.

KFP became successful to the point where production companies like Paramount and Sony realized the financial impact the Chinese audience has. Greater steps are taken to allow for further transnational collaboration between the US film industry and Chinese film industry. The 2016 Great Wall monster movie directed by Chinese director Zhang Yi Mou was poorly acclaimed by US critics, but was financially successful in China, as Chinese people were ecstatic and nationally prideful having been able to be apart of a production internationally recognized with famous faces and names. However little do they realize they are falling into the exact scheme of what Hollywood and its film industry wants – money. Having realized its success from the Chinese market, it furthers works to generate more in hopes of making more money.

China as a nation has grown increasingly successful in generating revenue and become more financially stable in the last few decades. The major flaw to becoming more financially successful in making globally recognized content, is because of China’s dependency and default of looking up to the US market instead of forging their own content and brands. This isn’t to say China does not have a chance to create something as successful as KFP of its own culture. China just has yet to – it’ll just be awhile while the Western market continues to profit and makes money off of Chinese culture before the Chinese nation itself will realize its potential.

romance in disney animated movies

Everyone growing up watched Disney movies. They’re all classics. My family especially all loved anything Disney. I loved the princesses and princes and the love stories. Everything I wanted out of a movie was found in all these Disney classics as a child.

With everything going out in Hollywood today about females in the media and how they are represented, it has made me reflect on every film and television show I have watched and has made me think back to how these females were represented.

We got into an interesting conversation in our Animated Perspectives class the other day about females especially in animated Disney movies. There were points brought up about why does the princess always have to end up with a prince? Why is the female always just looking for romance and not something more out of life? I felt as if my favorite childhood movies were being criticized for misrepresenting females. This conversation stayed with me for a while. I am all for women being empowered, strong, and not just being looked at for their appearance and body. I also believe on the other hand, that everyone wants romance. Why can’t we have both?

Disney movies to me aren’t just about the girl getting the guy and they lived happily ever after. I feel like that ending is important though because it made me dream of finding a real love and that does exist in the world. Maybe it is because I am a hopeless romantic, but I always loved the happy ending and romance in Disney movies. I feel like every person looks to find that special someone and I don’t think having this idea in Disney movies is a negative at all or an attack on female empowerment.

I feel like the romance in Disney movies doesn’t take away from the main character’s objective. I feel as though yes, there is romance, but there is also a different goal. I have thought a lot since this conversation in class about how females are represented in Disney movies. Disney puts out films that appeal to all audiences. They would never make a movie that made females seem weak. I think having a strong and independent princess as the main character is actually a great thing. It inspired me not to just aspire to be a princess and get married, but I see all these Disney princesses also going out seeking other things in life.

Princess Jasmine didn’t even want to get married. The entire movie she relentlessly tells her father how she doesn’t want to be traditional and find a husband. Ariel just wants to be on her own and not be under her father’s watch all the time. She just wants to explore being on land. Does any of this directly correlate to romance and finding a man? I don’t think so.

Some could argue this young love in these movies also sends the wrong message to little girls but I disagree. I think if anything, it shows you to want to create your own path and journey, as all these Disney princesses do. If you meet the love of you life along the way great, but it’s not a requirement to being happy, it’s a bonus.

I think Disney movies are actually positively influential on young girls and aren’t sending the wrong message. I think these movies can be inspiring for girls to be strong and that you don’t need a guy to be happy, but also if you find a true love, it can be truly magical.


Standing on the Shoulders of Totoro: Studio Ponoc’s Struggle

It’s a well traveled road to posture Hayao Miyazaki as the father of today’s cartoon stylistic convention, as is it to panic that he is finally retiring and the influence Studio Ghibli has held for decades is finally coming to an end. But with what seems to be the final gasp of Ghibli upon us, many die hard fans continue to seek the familiar comforts of this trademark style in new upstarts.

I had the chance to see Mary and the Witch’s Flower in theaters last month, and being an animation student who  grew up with the films (I discovered the VHS tape of Spirited Away in my library when searching for the Dreamworks film Spirit) I was drawn in mostly by nostalgia for the look of the film. From the trailers alone, it is not quite clear that it is even from a studio other than Ghibli. However, as all the animation-savvy know, this movie comes from Studio Ponoc, a group of ex-Ghibli animators striking out on their own after the company announced its hiatus. However, from the advertisement and style choices, it is not clear how much the team is attempting to distance themselves and how much they are playing into the marketability of the Ghibli style.

Abroad, Ghibli is considered one of the few mass-marketable ‘anime’ studios. After the success of Sailor Moon, Speed Racer, and Power Rangers, it became clear to executives of children’s media in the United States that there was a lucrative business for adaptation of Japanese media for a young american audience. However, because of the differences in opinion of animation in the west, much of the anime culture doesn’t ‘translate’ for the demographic studios see animation being suited for, leading it to be a mostly niche interest Stateside. Ghibli seems to  be one of the few immune to this misinterpretation- due mostly to their standalone nature, and the lack of regional misunderstandings- there is nothing in these films that the audience MUST know about Japanese culture to understand the basis of the plot or to enjoy the movie.  Because the studio  found its way into a deal with Disney for American distribution, the way for success was paved. Ponoc may have stylistic similarities because of the creators’ past at the studio, but it is not an accident that they make frequent mention of a studio that already has a mythology in the United States.

Although branding was an added bonus for Ponoc’s history with Ghibli, critical eyes were on them to find a way to break out of the shadow. Mary and the Witch’s Flower  does this surprisingly in its appeal to western audiences. There is an undeniable appeal  to the Harry Potter loving population, from the western style narrative and the mystery plot in a magic school setting. The style also makes an appeal to  the more anime-inclined in it’s few stylistic divergences from tradiorinal ghibli artwork; artists emulate angular shape  deformations rather than round, gooey movements of fluid objects in movies like Spirited Away.

The story itself is comfortably predictable. The setups and payoffs all play through as expected, and in most cases take a backseat to the visuals. The only major issue that seems to shine through is the lack of characterization of the two young leads. Mary herself suffers from the ‘generic tomboyish lead female’ archetype. Her main flaw is her clumsiness, and she is self conscious about her looks despite having little visual distinctiveness (her hair is described as being curly, but is drawn in straight shocks out of her head in much the same way her broom is drawn.) The male character, Peter, is similarly under characterized, being a bully to Mary for the first five minutes of his screen time and suddenly a friend out of  nowhere to her in the rest. Although the leads are lackluster, the supporting characters present fun new iterations of kitschy witch culture. There are two cat farmillairs, a pair of bumbling villainous headmasters, and a gentle elderly ex-witch, who all bring excellent characterization and whimsy onscreen and  steal the stage.

The most interesting element of the film is the titular “witch’s flower’, a naturally occurring blossom that grants the user magic for one day. At times the loss of the abilities the flower grants her makes for an interesting challenge for Mary, and at the film’s climax she must face off with only the strength of her own conviction. This moment left me with some sense of suspense, but the certainty that characters, according to the Ghibli law, had to end up enjoying natural scenery and interacting in mundane situations in a comforting after credits sequence defeated this suspense in its infancy.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower is unsurprising, and it is not hard to see why. The lack of international accommodation has left the film with a very niche release. Ponoc had to stay on formula to emulate the success that Ghibli generates today, much less try to create the buzz of the classic films from its heyday. However, no one can fault the film, as it delivers on exactly what the trailer promises; it is a lighthearted romp that is stylistically similar to studio Ghibli’s films, but told through a western lens.


This attempt  to gain an audience may have actually critically failed the film. Much of the freshness of the core Ghibli films was their allegiance to an eastern story arc, and an eastern aesthetic. In America, the style of storytelling alone was enough to surprise newcomers to the style, and the beautiful visuals made them as much of a staple in pop culture as disney characters. Chihiro, Kiki, and Nausicaa all captivated audiences as female leads because they underwent vastly different arcs, but we’re all still totally believable characters. Mary is not as powerfully written as these ladies, and the world she lives in sloped dangerously near derivative at times.

In spite of this, there is reason to believe that Ponoc will begin to not only find their own style, but that they will flourish when new initiative is taken in the writing direction for future films. By their own admission, Ponoc was created for the express purpose of continuation of the Ghibli style in feature animation. However, the beautiful visuals, promise of the supporting cast, and standout moments of real storytelling skill prove that here is a ‘witch’s flower’ of ability within this studio. We are all cheering for Ponoc, and I  personally hope they can make their magic last much longer than one night.