Mary and the Witch's Flower Review
In the last few years we have been through a new age of brilliant anime films. Young Name, A Silent Voice, In This Corner of the World, all are brilliant pieces of filmmaking that might not be widely released in the West but all are a treasure to discover. Now we have Mary and the Witch’s Flower by the newly founded Studio Ponoc, a charming film that evokes your favourite adventure stories as a child, fitting when this is based on the book The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, but with a beautifully fresh feeling brought in by the animation that can only be produced by veterans of that titan of anime: Studio Ghibli.
Initially Mary and the Witch’s Flower has a simple starting point that is very appealing and familiar; a bored child discovers some magical world and hijinks ensue. Mary is a great little main character for a children’s film; she is kind, well-meaning, and curious, but also makes mistakes, is worried about starting a new school, and is insecure about herself and particularly about her personal abilities and not being good at anything. It’s something that can be relatable at just about any age. So, when she stumbles across a flying broomstick and finds herself in Endor College, the most exclusive magic school, we are right there with her in all her confusion and excitement, and then when she needs to help her new friend and save him from the plots of the - more misguided than truly evil - villains.
You cannot completely divorce Studio Ponoc from Studio Ghibli, and in a way nor should you. This isn’t a case of “this is what is replacing Studio Ghibli”, it’s that Studio Ponoc has grown from Studio Ghibli organically like a tree branch, making the anime movie industry bigger and stronger and more beautiful. Director Hiromasa Yonebashi also directed Studio Ghibli’s stunning When Marnie was There, a sweet and emotionally mature tale of personal discovery. Whilst Mary and the Witch’s Flower is not quite as complex thematically it does show that same refusal by Yonebashi to talk down to its young audience. It is possible. however, that very young viewers may find the film long and harder to follow. To use a Studio Ghibli based barometer, this is less My Neighbour Totoro or Ponyo, and more Laputa Castle in the Sky or The Secret World of Arrietty.
It would be a lot stranger if the animation wasn’t an artistic joy. The animators visited England and it really shows in the gorgeous and intricate details of the countryside, and there’s even a tin of Celebrations in the background of one shot, how is that for attention to detail? Then when the action moves to the magical school, imagination is let loose in a riot of form, colours, and impossible geography that makes Hogwarts look like the bland local comprehensive school. It is a delightful visual feast and it is impossible to take in everything to see in one viewing.
Both the original Japanese voices and the English cast are really good. The ongoing debate of “sub vs dub” is one with no right or wrong answer, despite what some people say. There are bad dubs but overall if you find it easier to appreciate a film’s animation in your native language there is nothing wrong with that.
For this feature we get an always on form Jim Broadbent and a delightful and initially unrecognisable Kate Winslet as Madame Mumblechook, but it is BFG’s Ruby Barnhill as Mary that really makes it, giving us a much better and less forced performance than if it had been an adult voice actor performing a child role. Also, Ewen Bremner as Broom Master Flanagan is just a little delight. There is a simple and pure joy to watching Mary and the Witch’s Flower; it’s just nice to be drawn into its magical world and go on an adventure, and it is one that I would happily go on again.