Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s sixth tip for writing fiction is, “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading character is, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of.” When Mr. Vonnegut does this, it’s very depressing. On the other hand, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a plot where awful and magical things happen to a little girl, but it never bums you out.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower (streamable on Netflix) is a 2017 anime film about a lonely little girl named Mary Smith. She moved away from her home and her friends, is made fun of for her frizzy red hair, and is adorably clumsy. She’s very loved by her Great Aunt Charlotte, but every other character is there to remind her how uncoordinated or unattractive she is. The main conflict arises after she finds a magic plant that gives her powers. This plant calls on a witch’s broom to uber her to evil-Hogwarts, and the headmistress threatens to transformer her and her only friend/former bully into animals.
Yes, I skipped a lot of middle parts. I do this to illustrate the point that it’s a movie about bad things happening to a perfectly innocent little girl.
Still, it’s hard to feel like that’s what’s happening. Partially because they did the “little girl trope” incorrectly. The film behaves like it wants you to believe that Mary Smith is a victim, but she’s clearly not because she’s bratty enough to stand up for herself. It also behaves like it wants you to believe she’s unpleasant to look at, but she’s adorable! Then there’s her clumsiness, which disappears when she needs enough hand-eye coordination to ride a flying broom at 300 mph and defeat evil.
To put it in Mr. Vonnegut’s terms, I’m not able to see what Mary Smith is really made of because Mary never truly hurt. In fact, throughout the film I don’t think Mary was ever in real danger for longer than five minutes before escaping it.
Despite the incongruity’s in Mary’s character, the movie was very entertaining. The characters were charming, the art was pleasing, the voice acting was well done. The element of magic in the movie was a refreshing reimagining of the fantasy genre. As a Catholic, I do recognize media which depicts magic incorrectly can be very harmful – even invite demons. The magic in Mary and the Witch’s Flower doesn’t run the same risk. Unlike Harry Potter, which presents magic as some god-like power which can be controlled by humans with a dominant magic gene, Mary and the Witch’s Flower pretends that magic is a sort of chemistry done with a fun rhyme. Chemistry and electricity are called “magic.” The show is just as likely to encourage young viewers to play with chemistry sets as it is to encourage them to put a broom between their legs and pretend to fly.
Maybe I’m just too melancholic. I feel that the movie would have been far better if the animation was Lovecraftian and Mary Smith was much closer to failure. A Tim Burton Presents: Mary and the Witch’s Flower might be what I have in mind. I want a protagonist for whom I can fear. That’s just never going to happen if they get out of scrapes so easily. Yes, on a person to person level I ought to feel sorry for a little girl who’s in danger, and I ought to be happy when they avoid danger easily. But on a listener to story teller level, I want that little girl to be a hero. As long as writers see innocent little protagonists as things too precious to struggle, to sacred to hurt, audiences will never be able to see them as small vessels for God’s greatest work.
– J. Hector Guardiola