Mary and the Witch's Flower
Updated: Feb 5
Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a likable, beautifully animated, family film. It is the first film produced by Japan’s Studio Ponoc (the English language dub is currently playing in theaters). It is not quite on the level of many of the films produced by famous Japanese animator Studio Ghibli (Grave of the Fireflies, My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away among many others), but it is still quite enjoyable.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower (based on Mary Stewart’s 1971 novel The Little Broomstick) tells the story of Mary (voiced by Ruby Barnhill, who starred as Sophie in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of The BFG), a young girl who has just moved into the home of her Great Aunt Charlotte (Lynda Baron). While waiting for her parents to come, and for school to begin, she grows bored. She follows two cats, Tib and Gib, into the nearby woods and finds a mysterious flower which she picks and takes home. The next day, she follows Tib to another part of the woods where she discovers a broomstick tangled in some tree roots. After freeing the broomstick, she accidentally bursts a bulb from the flower on it. This causes the broomstick to come alive. It flies Mary and Tib to a magical school in the clouds, thus beginning her adventure.
The animation has a fairytale quality to it. It seems like there is something magical going on even in the most mundane of moments. In general, it is very enjoyable to look at. But the highlight of the film is the school in the clouds. Endor College, the school for magic Mary finds herself transported to, is an amazing creation. Every frame during the scenes that take place there is filled with amazing sights such as a person made out of water, a room where there are desks on the floor, walls and ceiling and all sorts of strange and wonderful creatures filling up the backgrounds. It is truly remarkable to look at.
The story and characters are not quite as strong as the visuals. The story is intriguing as long as it hangs on to its secrets. But once things start getting revealed, it loses a little of its initial charm. It is too reminiscent of other family fantasy films to really stand out.
As far as the characters go, Mary is a plucky heroine with just enough depth to make her easy to root for. Most of the supporting characters, however, are not very interesting. Great Aunt Charlotte, her housekeeper, Banks (Morwenna Banks), and her groundskeeper, Zebedee (Rasmus Hardiker), do not add much. Peter (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), the boy who owns the two cats and takes an interest in Mary, is useful for the plot, but mainly just gives Mary someone to react to.
The more creative characters are found at the school. The head of Endor College is Madame Mumblechook (Kate Winslet), a welcoming witch who seems delighted to meet the redheaded Mary (redheads are said to make for the best witches). Then there is the diminutive professor Doctor Dee (the wonderful voice of Jim Broadbent, who was onscreen last week in Paddington 2), who moves around in a robotic car that looks like a spider. They are both quite eccentric and bring an element of mystery to the film. Also at the school is the friendly Flanagan (Ewen Bremner, a supporting player in last summer’s hit Wonder Woman), who takes care of the students' broomsticks. He appears to be a large mouse of some kind. The characters here definitely have more life to them and are absolutely more exciting to look at.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower (99 minutes without the end credits) was directed and co-written (along with Riko Sakaguchi) by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, the director of 2016 Best Animated Film Oscar nominee When Marnie Was There (which was produced by Studio Ghibli). While not quite as good as his previous film, it still marks him as a director to watch out for. It is fun to look at and fast moving. There is far more originality in his animation than in his story and characters, but the overall film is pleasant enough. It may seem like Studio Ghibli lite, but that is still pretty good.
3½ out of 5
Ruby Barnhill as Mary
Louis Ashbourne Serkis as Peter
Kate Winslet as Madame Mumblechook
Jim Broadbent as Doctor Dee
Ewen Bremner as Flanagan
Lynda Baron as Great Aunt Charlotte
Morwenna Banks as Banks
Rasmus Hardiker as Zebedee
Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Screenplay by Riko Sakaguchi and Hiromasa Yonebayashi English translation by David and Lynda Freedman