If you’re a fan of Studio Ghibli’s gorgeous animated fantasies you will be enchanted by this debut from Japan’s Studio Ponoc. Mary and the Witch’s Flower continues the Ghibli tradition of dusting down old English children’s books and transforming them into splendid visual adventures.
Director Hiromasa Yonebashi follows his adaptations of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (1952) — Arrietty — and Joan G. Robinson’s When Marnie Was There (1967) with this animation of The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart (1971).
Why are these Japanese animators so drawn to our old-fashioned children’s books? Perhaps they grew up reading them and see them as touchstones of a pre-digital age in which children had more freedom to play and dream. In Mary and the Witch’s Flower 12 year-old Mary Smith goes out for a picnic on her own and doesn’t return home until nightfall.
Studio Ghibli became the beloved widescreen custodian of our childhood dreams, with films like My Nieghbour Totoro capturing those golden summer holidays when we let our imaginations fly and anything was possible. Watching Mary and the Witch’s Flower we are similarly gifted the space to luxuriate in the lush watercolour landscapes and the lovingly painted rooms of Mary’s holiday cottage.
Mary has been sent to stay with her Great-Aunt Charlotte but she is bored. The old television is broken and she has no friends to play with. She hates her frizzy red hair and wonders whether she will ever be good at anything. When a black cat leads her into a wood she picks a glowing blue flower which gives her magical powers.
Tib the cat shows Mary a broomstick with an inscription on its handle and soon she is astride it, with her emerald-eyed familiar on the back, pogoing and levitating wildly around the wood. They shoot into the clouds and arrive in a beautiful new land with a domed citadel. This turns out to be Endor College for witches, dating back to the days of dragons.
Headmistress Madam Mumblechook is delighted to welcome Mary as a new pupil, showering her with praise for her flaming red hair, which only the best witches have, and her ‘phenomenal talent’. But when the girl confesses that her magical abilities are flower-powered Madam and her sidekick, Doctor Dee, start to show the dark side of Endor.
Can Mary keep hold of her special flower and rescue her friend Peter from the ‘strong room’, where he is imprisoned with assorted fantastical beasts – the results of scientific experiment ‘failures’?
Mary and the Witch’s Flower features an engagingly clumsy and spirited protagonist and a moody cat, who has an impressively wide vocabulary of ‘meows’. It has wise things to say about transformation, the abuse of power (‘some powers in this world just can’t be harnessed’) and failure (‘failures are valuable’).
But, gorgeous visuals apart, it feels like the creative handbrake is on. The best Studio Ghibli films are universal, quirky and wildly imaginative, whereas Studio Ponoc’s debut feels more like a ‘safe’ film made with its target audience of 7- 11 year olds in mind. Its musical score strives to be yearning and romantic in the tradition of Ghibli’s go-to composer, Joe Hisaishi, but does not linger in the memory.
Studio Ghibli set the bar so high with their best animated adventures such as Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, that most follow-ups in the same vein will inevitably suffer by comparison. But I, for one, am delighted that Hiromasa Yonebashi and his team created Mary and the Witch’s Flower. It keeps our childhood dreams alive.