When legendary animator Hiyao Miyazaki announced his retirement in 2013, and Studio Ghibli subsequently shut their doors, you could be forgiven for thinking that the era of beautiful hand-drawn Japanese animation was over. Then came the arrival of Studio Ponoc, founded by Yoshiaki Nishimura and former Ghibli animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Yonebayashi studied under Miyazaki, working on such classics as Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, before graduating to directing duty on the likes of Arrietty and When Marnie Was There. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is the first feature film from Studio Ponoc, and in both style and storytelling it has beautifully continued the tradition of Studio Ghibli.
Using that classic Miyazaki premise of someone moving to a new home and discovering all sorts of strange adventures, Mary and the Witch’s Flower sees the titular Mary (voiced by Ruby Barnhill in the English version) living with her Great Aunt in the English countryside. The summer is stretching out forever, and she is extremely bored. That is until two adorable scowly-faced cats lead her into the woods, where she discovers the magical ‘fly-by-night’ flower and a little broomstick hidden amongst the trees.
The film, which has moved at a gentle pace up until this moment, suddenly swooshes into life, as Mary flies beyond the clouds and discovers the magical college of Endor – a school for witches and warlocks. The film has been compared to a hybrid of Harry Potter and Spirited Away, and that is not entirely arbitrary, and certainly not a criticism. The film is based on Mary Stewart’s 1971 children’s book The Little Broomstick, which was surely an inspiration for the Potter books.
The scenes of Mary being given a tour of the college, evoke both the magical wonder of seeing Hogwarts for the first time, and also the tantalising fear and dream-state imagery of the bathhouse in Spirited Away. Our plucky, bushy-haired heroine is mistaken for a new student at the school. The nectar of the flower has granted her strange and uncontrollable powers, and the headmistress Madam Mumblechook (Kate Winslet) and school scientist Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent) sense she may be one of the strongest witches they have ever encountered. But the discovery of the fly-by-night changes everything, and the film morphs into a daring adventure.
As a technical achievement, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is almost flawless. The film is a visual feast, full of invention and dazzling images. Alongside the magnificent and moving score by Takatsugu Muramatsu, it makes for a truly enchanting experience. Though not content with simply delivering a charming and magical adventure, Yonebayashi mines the story to find deeper thematic concerns, such as transformation (butterfly imagery features prominently), distrust of humanity’s intention towards nature, and a neat little morality tale about the use and abuse of power.
But all of that heavy stuff is handled with such a deft touch you won’t at any time be distracted from the delightful adventure you are watching. If you were worried that the Ghibli era was over, fear not, for Studio Ponoc has delivered in spades. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a terrific start for the new animation house, and both a beautiful tribute to – and continuation of – the peerless work of Ghibli and Miyazaki.
Cast: Ruby Barnhill, Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent, Ewen Bremner Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi Writer: Hiromasa Yonebayashi & Riko Sakaguchi Released By: Altitude Film Entertainment Certificate: U Duration: 103 mins Release Date: 10th September 2018