Mary and the Witch’s Flower marks the first hand-drawn anime offering from Studio Ponoc. With inevitable similarities to the beloved fantasy epics of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki’s films, it’s not a surprise that Ponoc was set up by Ghibli veterans.
Diehard devotees will detect glimmers of Kiki’s Delivery Service, their classic Spirited Away and other pics, even though Mary and the Witch’s Flower is actually drawn from a British children’s book, The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart (1916 – 2014), which was published way back in 1971.
With a wide-eyed young heroine rather like the protagonists of co-writer/director Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s previous animated outings Arriety and When Marnie Was There (both Ghibli-produced), this introduces us to Mary (The BFG star Ruby Barnhill in the dubbed version), a kind-hearted but clumsy teen with wildly frizzy red hair she hates and a tendency to flights of imagination. She’s staying in the country with her Great-Aunt Charlotte (voiced by Lynda Baron from the BBC classic Open All Hours) as her unseen parents are too busy. She ventures into the woods one day and is led by a cranky cat to a mysterious, luminous blue flower.
Soon she’s also discovered a broomstick which kicks into life and transports her to a realm in the clouds where she finds Endor College and meets schoolmasters Madam Mumblechook (Kate Winslet’s voice) and Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent’s voice), who are at first nice and, after a guided tour and lots of fanciful detail, allow Mary to leave. However, this somehow turns into a study of spiritual corruption, so soon they’ve changed their minds and Broadbent has got his nasty voice on, as what he and the Madam have been up to becomes clear and they kidnap Peter (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of Andy), whom Mary had previously thought was just annoying. Now she must try to save him in a quietly sub-feminist final act.
With this English-dubbed version personally supervised by the director, Yonebayashi’s film also offers non-computer animation that’s mostly lavish,lovely and only occasionally shuddery. There’s also plenty of fantastical, even surreal inventions, including College guards which look a little like deep sea divers (with holes in their sternums) that can somehow become gelatinous flying dolphin-things, bubble-prisons and goo-walls which prove slightly reminiscent of Akira.
And yes, some audiences are still suggesting that this is a rip-off of the Harry Potter universe, so it’s worth noting that J.K. Rowling was six the year that Stewart’s source book was published.
NB: Mary And The Witch’s Flower is screening at cinemas in both the dubbed version described above and the original Japanese language version with subtitles
Rated PG. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is in cinemas now