Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Starring: Ruby Barnhill, Kate Winslett and Jim Broadbent
Running time: 102 mins
Studio Ponoc is taking the mantle of a legendary reign by Studio Ghibli, and with their first offering Mary and the Witch’s Flower we can see that the legacy is in competent hands. Carried by a studio stalwart; director Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret World of Arrietty and When Marnie Was There), this is the story of a young, Ghibli-worthy heroine, Mary Smith who struggles with her own insecurities and self-doubt, moving to live with her gentle Great Aunt Charlotte in a beautiful house deep in the English countryside.
Mary has awkward, curly red hair and a tendency to break everything she touches, but she also has a big desire to be helpful and just wants to make a friend. The lonely summer is endlessly stretching out in front of her and the prospect of her parents coming to join her and starting at her new school seem too far away. Peter, a boy from the village won’t take her seriously and she can’t even get simple chores right without causing complete chaos. That is until she ventures into the strange and mysterious wood that borders her Great-Aunt’s house and finds a beautiful and very rare flower that may just have magical properties.
Based on the beloved children’s book The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is the perfect blend between classic Miyazaki and Harry Potter. There is just enough actual danger to make you feel like anything could happen next. The film starts with a brilliantly executed action sequence where a mysterious young witch steals the magical flower from a strange and curiously wrought castle and flees for her life while pursued by surreal and ever-changing creatures, reminiscent of Ponyo or Spirited Away.
This is a story about learning who you really are and embracing those qualities which make you unique
When events lead Mary to Endor school (which puts Hogwarts to shame) and meets Madame Mumblechook (dubbed by a fantastically stern Kate Winslet) and Doctor Dee (the excellent Jim Broadbent) who seem suspiciously friendly, secrets will surface and Mary will find out what she is really made of. In the classic Ghibli tradition, the villains are not two-dimensional caricatures but multi-faceted personalities who may just need some assistance in seeing the error in their ways and some help in turning things around, where a strong, brave and kind hero like Mary can find her true potential and save them from themselves. This is a story about learning who you really are and embracing those qualities which make you unique - a fundamental right for all children (and adults too)!
In truth, there isn’t as much originality in Mary and the Witch’s Flower as there could have been, but it does tackle some poignant issues. There is an underlying question which asks: how much can nature be exploited for selfish reasons and do we have time to undo the damage we cause? When nature is harnessed for bad reasons it becomes too powerful to be controlled and it is only through Mary’s innocence and bravery that they have a chance at redemption. Despite times of playing it safe, this is a good strong start to a new era in Japanese animation. I thought nothing would be able to top Miyazaki’s vision and creativity (and he is currently still safely the master) but I look forward to seeing Studio Ponoc stretch its wings and take us in a new and wonderful direction.
Did you know? Hiromasa Yonebayashi screened the film for his former colleagues at Studio Ghibli. Hayao Miyazaki gave Yonebayashi a congratulations but said he wouldn't see the film. Toshio Suzuki and Isao Takahata both gave the movie praise and congratulated Yonebayashi on his work.
Mary and the Witch's Flower is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 24 May