Mary and the Witch’s Flower
Ruby Barnhill, Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent (voices)
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…a wonderful children’s film full of fun magic and breathtaking imagination…
While the name Studio Ghibli reigns supreme in the perception of Japanese animation in the Western world, we must remember that a studio is not one homogenous entity: it is made up of thousands of creatives, animators and writers, who each contribute their own little piece of themselves to each film. One such creative is Hiromasa Yonebayashi, a prominent Studio Ghibli figure who has not only been an animator on some their most successful films since 1997’s Princess Mononoke, including Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, but also directed some of their more recent films Arrietty and When Marnie Was There. Now, Yonebayashi is breaking out, and creating his own film based on Mary Stewart’s The Little Broomstick –Mary and the Witch’s Flower.
The film sees a young girl named Mary (Hana Sugisaki in the Japanese version, Ruby Barnhill in the English) spending the summer at her Great-Aunt Charlotte’s (Shinobu Otake, Lynda Barron) house in the countryside, extremely bored and in need of a friend, until she comes across a mystical blue flower in the woods known as ‘fly-by-night’.Known as the Witch’s Flower, its petals imbue Mary with a mysterious magic, showing her a school of magic known as Endor College she never knew existed around her – but this new world, and its leaders, the powerful Madam Mumblechook (Yuki Amami, Kate Winslet) and the eccentric Doctor Dee (Fumiyo Kunihata, Jim Broadbent), is more twisted than she first realises.
Though immediately reminiscent of Harry Potter (not least with the inclusion of Jim Broadbent as a chemistry teacher), Mary and the Witch’s Flower is fascinating in its depiction of magic in an entirely new way. There is more science, yet less structure; Mary’s opportunities to learn magic at Endor College range from invisibility and flight to changing the fabric of the universe around her, creating a magical lore around the film that makes you want to learn so much more.
It’s a shame, however, that we learn very little – the film could easily have been longer, or even benefitted from being part of a larger series or even a television show (the former of which, after the film’s ending, is unlikely). Whilst we get plenty of setup involving Mary and her boredom at Great-Aunt Charlotte’s, we are in and out of Endor College faster than a broomstick ride, leaving much to be desired.
That said, in this time we learn much about Mary, a precocious, well-natured but self-involved child, as she bounds around the forest with adorable neighbourhood cats Tib and Gib, and through this we see the true beauty of Yonebayashi and his team’s animation. The depth of their secondary characters may not hit the heights of the Endor College imagery, with everyone from Great-Aunt Charlotte to Mary’s new friend Peter (Ryunosuke Kamiki, Louis Ashborne Serkis) getting short shrift compared to Mary’s story.
Studio Ghibli is one of the rare animation studios that have near-mastered the art of telling stories for both children and adults. In stepping out on his own, Hiromasa Yonebayashi has made a wonderful children’s film full of fun magic and breathtaking imagination, but unfortunately his characters and pacing need work. With such promising seeds of storytelling in Mary and the Witch’s Flower, it will be fascinating to see what he comes up with next.