‘Mary and the Witch’s Flower’ MOVIE REVIEW: Picturesque Anime Doesn’t Reach Ghibli Heights

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Mary and the Witch’s Flower marks the first film out of newly formed Japanese animation house Studio Ponoc. If the film’s animation reminds you of the work produced by the master animation house that is Studio Ghibli, there’s good reason: Ponoc founder Yoshiaki Nishimura is a former Ghibli producer and brought the new studio to life with a number of former Ghibli animators. It comes as no major surprise then that the animation is gorgeous, although they’ve got a bit to go before they match the heights of, say, My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away or Ponyo, to name but a few of Ghibli’s hits. Yes, with the film’s animation and tonal similarities with Ghibli, comparisons with the studio’s output is inevitable.

The film follows Mary, a young girl staying with her Great-Aunt Charlotte in the countryside during the summer. She’s bored, with little to do, and her clumsiness has her falling short when attempting to help with house work or gardening. While out having a picnic by her lonesome, she encounters a curious cat and follows it into the forest, where she discovers a strange flower along with a broom. Before long, she finds herself on the broom, flying through the clouds. She soon arrives at Endor College, which she learns is a school of magic run by headmistress Madam Mumblechook and Doctor Dee. It’s best to leave it there for the synopsis, but suffice it to say that all is not what it seems here.

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Although it’s based on the 1971 children’s book The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, there are some pretty big similarities/references to the school of magic we were introduced to in the Harry Potter films. Even Takatsugu Muramatsu’s melodic score takes a few cues from the films. That’s not necessarily a negative, mind you; Harry Potter fans may actually enjoy these familiarities. Unfortunately, while the school here is given a good amount of screen time, in what seems to be an important tour that Mary’s given of the campus, it doesn’t actually add up to much in terms of the overall story. The crux lies with the lead characters, leaving this location and Mary’s growing interest in it feeling like a bit of a wasted opportunity – and thus perhaps a bit of wasted time.

Therein lies the problem with Mary and the Witch’s Flower. The film has quite the leisurely pace, which isn’t a criticism on its own, but it is when the pacing suffers from a lack of narrative momentum in a few too many areas. While it’s all quite pretty, the story seems too thin to be stretched into a 1 hour and 42 minute run-time that, unfortunately, feels longer. Children, in particular, may find themselves losing patience while waiting for things to pick up, which does happen, but only in short spurts. Thankfully, the finale does pick up the pace and drive home some exciting animation.

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As mentioned, the hand-drawn imagery is perhaps the film’s major winning factor. The locations, the gentle moments of characterisation, the magic; it’s all quite lovely, although there’s not much anime fans haven’t seen before. There are a few moments where imagination and creative animation get a moment to shine, reminding of some of Ghibli’s fine work, only you’re left wanting more. Screenwriters Riko Sakaguchi and Hiromasa Yonebayashi may have wanted to keep the focus on character and director Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret of Arrietty, When Marnie Was There) clearly relishes the unhurried mood, culminating in a film that is content to work within safe limitations.

Taking more chances, inserting a few more plot elements and providing audiences with a higher sense wonder could have made Mary and the Witch’s Flower a winner. Still, it’s an amiable, safe animated picture that should be a harmless outing for families. For Studio Ponoc, it’s nevertheless a promising start.