Pass the Popcorn: Powers that Cannot Be Harnessed

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I know, I owe you a review of Darkest Hour – which is so great on the big screen, you should go out and see it before it leaves theaters. I’m working on that review! (At least I don’t have to worry about spoilers.)

You know what else you should see before it leaves theaters? Mary and the Witch’s Flower, a worthy successor to the Studio Ghibli legacy producd by the fledgling Studio Ponoc, and helmed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, director of the outstanding Secret World of Arietty.

So, yes, this movie has credentials. And it lives up to them.


Some have unfortunately attempted to describe it as “Harry Potter meets Spirited Away.” That is accurate as to subject matter. It’s about an ordinary kid who gets swept away to a magical alternate world, and spends most of her time in a magical school. But the magic in this movie is the weird and dangerous magic of pagan animism, not the rational and orderly – the essentially Christian – magic of Harry Potter. So that description is technically correct.

Actually, you could have made a pretty interesting movie out of “What if Hogwarts were pagan?” But that movie is not Mary and the Witch’s Flower.

This movie has a point, and a good one. It’s not actually about magic – ancient or medieval. It’s about the corruption of good causes and ambitions into bad ones. In particular, it illustrates the tendency of well-meaning people to seek to harness and control the whole universe in the name of their high ideals and aspiration to progress. What disappears in this mental world of total control is any kind of standard – nature – that is outside our control and to which our efforts at progress and reform are supposed to conform. We set out to produce order and beauty, we take control of the world to produce order and beauty, and by taking everything under our own control, we lose any standard outside ourselves for what counts as order and beauty. And so we destroy even the imperfect order and beauty that was already in the world before we took control of it, and we produce only monsters.


Those who remain morally awake, who don’t lose their heads under the influence of grand ideologies, are those who combine a love of adventure and a love of ordinary life. Paradoxical as it seems, this is actually a very normal and logical combination. The dream of total control kills both the awe of an uncontrollable world that is the essence of adventure, and the unselfconscious, purely natural domestic affections. Adventure and comfort must both be spontaneous and unplanned. And of course it is the contrast with being at home that makes the road romantic. As G.K. Chesterton puts it, the boy at the center of the fairy tale must be ordinary for the tale to be extraordinary; Jack must be small for the giant to be gigantic.

As a wise person says to Mary, “there are powers in this world that cannot be harnessed.”

I can’t get much more specific than that without spoiling things. Like Kubo, this is a movie you want to discover as you experience it.

Just go!

2 Responses to Pass the Popcorn: Powers that Cannot Be Harnessed

  1. […] Thought y’all might like to see my comments on Mary and the Witch’s Flower over at JPGB: […]

  2. […] forget Mary and the Witch’s Flower – both are worth seeing on the big […]

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