Directed by: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Starring: Ruby Barnhill, Kate Winslet, Morwenna Banks & Jim Broadbent
If you’ve not heard of Studio Ponoc, you’ll be forgiven as Mary and the Witch’s Flower or Maeri to Majo no Hana is their debut feature length anime release. The Japanese animation studio started life as an offshoot of legendary anime production house, Studio Ghibli and this new outfit has garnered enough buzz in their home country to be lauded as worthy successors.
Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, the film is based on the much loved 1971 children’s novel, The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart. Fans of Gibhli’s output and of anime in general will recognise Yonebayashi from having directed and worked on previous adaptations of classic British children’s texts, 2010’s The Secret World of Arrietty (based on The Borrowers by Mary Norton) and When Marnie Was There, released in 2014 and adapted from Joan G. Robinson’s classic novel of the same name. Marnie proved to be the final film for Ghibli, before announcing a hiatus after the release of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, and the retirement of co-founder Hayao Miyazaki prior to the film’s release.
In the film, young Mary is sent to the countryside to stay with her aunt Charlotte, whilst her parents are abroad. Mary tries to make herself useful by offering to help out by doing chores around the house, but in the end proves to be more of a hindrance than help to her aunt. One day, whilst sweeping up with her broom, Mary wanders away from her chores and led astray by one of the village cats.
Growing amongst the roots of a tree, Mary discovers a flower, “fly by night” which is said to possess special properties and can grants anyone who picks it magical powers for one day only. The broom accidentally brushes up against this magical flower and suddenly bursts to life, carting Mary off to a mystical world within the clouds, known as Endor, a college for Witches and Wizards. But all is not as it seems and Mary soon finds herself in grave danger…
Adaptations from the Ghibli stable have included both classic and modern Japanese, European and British tales alike but for Yonebayashi, there seems to be a particular appeal of English stories with elements of the fantastic. Ghibli is known the world over for its unique visual style, providing sumptuous landscapes and mystical worlds bursting with bright colours and a high level of intricate detail.
With Mary and the Witch’s Flower, the team of animators and creators at studio Ponoc certainly emulate this famously beautiful style; the scenes depicting the English countryside is afforded an almost romantic, painterly quality and indeed once we arrive at Endor, the film really comes into its own as the sheer scale of the fantastical college does all but leap off the screen. To be fair, it reminded this reviewer of the Harry Potter series (the original story may well have been one of many inspirations for Hogwarts) and if the much loved franchise were to be adapted into anime, it would quite probably look something like this.
The English dub of the film boasts an impressive cast, featuring the voice talents of Ruby Barnhill (2017’s The BFG), Kate Winslet and Jim Broadbent , along with Morwenna Banks, Ewen Bremner and Rasmus Hardiker. Certain members of this ensemble are also seasoned veterans when it comes to voice acting, and provide superb performances as you’d expect from actors of this calibre, lending an extra layer of richness to the already colourful cast of characters and creatures.
Whilst the film’s art style is very much in the Ghibli vein, with typically visually stunning visuals, unfortunately there is the tendency to rely on its visual cache and tries to scale the dizzying heights left by the legendary anime house, often at the expense of story or plot. Despite this, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a charming adaptation of the source material and will delight audiences both young and the young at heart.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower will receive limited release in selected cinemas from 4th May 2018 and a home release on DVD and Blu-Ray is slated for September 2018.