Right from its very first shot, Japanese animation feature film “Mary and the Witch’s Flower”, the first work from Studio Ponoc, tries to follow the footsteps of Studio Ghibli, and the result is successful to some degrees. While its artistic and technical achievement is not exactly on a par with what was achieved in many notable works of Studio Ghibli, it does provide some wonder and excitement as required, and you will probably come to have some expectation on what may come next from Studio Ponoc.
Based on Mary Stewart’s “The Little Broomstick”, the movie is about the unexpected adventure of Mary Smith (voiced by Hana Sugisaki), a young girl who comes to live in some rural town in England. Although her parents are absent for a while, she is being taken care of well by her great aunt Charlotte (voiced by Shinobu Otake) and Charlotte’s housekeeper Mrs. Banks (voiced by Eriko Watanabe), and she is eager to be nice and useful to everyone in the house although, as shown from several moments of broad humor, she is often as clumsy as I am in my miserable life.
Because the semester of her new school has not begun yet, Mary does not have anyone around her age except a young town boy named Peter (voiced by Ryunosuke Kamiki), who comes across her during a rather embarrassing moment of hers. She is not so pleased when he makes fun of her red hair, but it goes without saying that something clicks between them during their encounter, and she later acquaints herself with a pair of cats belonging to him.
And then something happens. After led into a nearby forest by Peter’s two cats, Mary happens to find a mysterious flower in the middle of the forest. When she shows that flower in question to the gardener working for her great aunt, the gardener tells her that it is a very rare flower which, according to a folk legend, is coveted by witches for its magical power.
Mary does not think seriously about what the gardener told her, but then she finds herself thrown into a very extraordinary circumstance. Shortly after doing an errand for her great aunt, Mary is led by one of Peter’s cats into the forest again, and she finds an old broomstick hidden behind the roots of a big tree. When she happens to burst the bulb of that mysterious flower and its content is spilt on her hands and the broomstick, the broomstick is suddenly animated and then begins to fly high in the sky, and she is astonished to see that she can ride it well as if she were, yes, a witch.
The broomstick eventually takes her to a hidden place far away from the town, and she becomes more amazed as realizing that the place is a college for witches. As soon as she is escorted to the front gate of the college by a talking fox named Flanagan (voiced by Jiro Sato), she encounters its headmistress Madame Mumblechook (voiced by Yūki Amami), and Madame Mumblechook, whose name instantly reminded me of Mr. Pumblechook in Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations”, is eager to show everything to Mary mainly because she hastily assumes that Mary is a prodigious young witch to enter her college.
Mary goes along with that assumption because she is understandably afraid and perplexed as facing this new alien world, and she comes to see lots of awesome sights while going here and there in the college along with Madame Mumblechook and Doctor Dee (voiced by Fumiyo Kohinata), who is your average mad scientist. In this wondrous place, they teach not only the magic arts but also science, and that interesting aspect is reflected well by several interesting things including a big walking machine for Doctor Dee.
Now many of you are reminded of those Harry Potter movies, but the story takes a left turn as Mary comes to realize something sinister about Madame Mumblechook and Doctor Dee, and the film gives us several striking visual moments to remember. There is a rather grotesque moment when Mary encounters what Madame Mumblechook and Doctor Dee have been hiding behind their back, and there are also a couple of good flying sequences which will probably remind you of “Kiki’s Delivery Service” (1989). Often reminiscent of Joe Hisaishi’s scores for the works of Studio Ghibli, the score by Takatsugu Muramatsu works well during these exciting sequences, and it certainly contributes a lot to the overall lyrical mood of the film.
“Mary and the Witch’s Flower” is the third animation feature film by director/co-adaptor Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who previously made “The Secret World of Arrietty” (2010) and “When Marnie Was There” (2014) for Studio Ghibli. Like “When Marnie Was There” and other notable works from Studio Ghibli, the film is simply beautiful to watch for its lovely cell animation style and bountiful details, and I particularly admire the considerable efforts shown from the scenes set in the college for witches, which are constantly filled with small and big things to be noticed and appreciated.
However, I must also point out that “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” did not amaze or enchant me as much as Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” (2001) or Isao Takahata’s “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” (2013). It is not exactly fantastic in my inconsequential opinion, but it shows some potentials at least along with enough entertainment, and I sincerely hope that it will be regarded as the opening of a new era after the recent unfortunate hiatus of Studio Ghibli.