Mary And The Witch’s Flower (Japan / PG / 103 mins)
In short: The spirit of Ghibli
Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Starring Hana Sugisaki, Ryunosuke Kamiki, Yuki Amami, Fumiyo Kohinata, Shinobu Otake.
The Plot: Red-haired girl Mary (Hana Sugisaki) lives with her Great-Aunt Charlotte (Shinobu Otake) in the countryside. Surrounded by older people, the only other person of her age is a boy, Peter (Ryunosuke Kamiki) who teases her by calling her a red-haired monkey. One day, she ventures out into the forest by herself and comes across a moody cat by the name of Tib. This all-knowing cat leads her to fly-by-night, a magical witch’s flower that has the ability to animate objects such as the broomstick she comes across. The broomstick takes her to the magical Endor College, where Madame Mumblechook (Yuki Amami) and her egg-head scientist Doctor Dee (Shinobu Otake) want to harness the power of the flower for themselves. Mary plays along as a witch-in-training, until the duo twig as to what’s really going on…
The Verdict: Studio Ghibli rightfully developed a reputation as Japan’s great animation studio. It had a masterful sense of imagination and a firm grasp on traditional storytelling, even scoring an Oscar for Spirited Away. However, a pause in production when legendary sensei Hayao Miyazaki temporarily retired resulted in a crisis. The result is Studio Ponoc, a new animation studio whose name suggests the beginning of a new day. At least, a new day for the creative talent involved, some of whom previously worked with Studio Ghibli. Their first production is Mary And The Witch’s Flower.
Adapted from the novel The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, this charming animated film blends the everyday and the magical into a satisfying whole. The story is built around the curious and defiant Mary, who has to right her wrongs in order to restore balance to the world. Or rather worlds – that of the Hogwarts-like Endor College (nothing to do with Ewoks, thankfully) and that of her quiet rural life where nothing much happens. At least that’s how it seems, but magic is never far away. The film plunges the viewer straight away into a dazzling opening sequence, then takes time to develop the characters and personalities (even the broomstick gets a quirky personality).
All of this is wrapped up in beautifully rendered traditional animation, from Madame Mumblechook’s fearsome first appearance to subtle, tender moments like a butterfly or the unfortunate creatures that Mary comes across later in the story. One can certainly sense the spirit of Studio Ghibli in the animation and the story, which deftly balances cutesiness with emotional heft. Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi directed When Marnie Was There and Arrietty for Studio Ghibli, but he strikes out on his own here, showing a quiet confidence in his material and his animators, who give full flight to their imaginations.
There’s no real sense that Studio Ponoc is trying to compete with Studio Ghibli here. With the latter returning to production in the near future with Miyazaki’s new film, Studio Ponoc is more the younger brother who wants to honour the elder, but make his own mark in the world. Their first feature is an impressive one. Mary And The Witch’s Flower is no trick. It’s a real treat for anime fans.