Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Giles New
Cast: Hana Sugisaki, Ryûnosuke Kamiki, Yûki Amami, Fumiyo Kohinata
Watch Mary and the Witch’s Flower online in the UK: iTunes / Amazon Instant Video / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
Studio Ghibli’s spellbinding legacy lives on with this first feature film Studio Ponoc, a studio founded by Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Yoshiaki Nishimura, two veterans of the Japanese animation powerhouse. Based on the 1971 novel The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, it’s a coming-of-age tale painted in rich watercolour and enchanting imagination.
Like so many Ghibli adventures, it begins with a child being moved to a new home. That child is Mary: red-headed, friendless, bored. But she finds a hint of something special, and a sense of belonging, when she follows the friendly neighbourhood black cat, who leads her to a mysterious blue flower – when a plant is glowing in the middle of the daytime, you know something’s not right. Sure enough, a squeeze of its petals gives her magical powers and blows her through the air (on a broom) to a hidden academy somewhere over the clouds.
It’s a wondrous place, full of strange contraptions, unusual creatures and eager pupils of the supernatural. There, Mary, who resents her red hair – and boy-next-door Peter who teases her for it – finds her ginger locks a marker of a strong witch, while the radiant flower gives her the kind of abilities that turn her into the star prodigy of the whole institution. The brilliantly named Madame Mumblechook falls head over heels for the apparent ingenue, while on-site mad genius Doctor Dee is delighted to think of the potentials her gifts could unlock.
But Mary and the Witch’s Flower doesn’t take long to live up to its gothic-tinged title and, after an initial period of elation, her dream escape gives way to nightmare when she discovers the exact work that the school’s stewards are carrying out. Introducing a dash of fantastical fright, director Yonebayashi fuses the brightly coloured visuals with a twisted vein of body horror; what emerges is a chilling, compelling study of magic’s moral code, questioning the right and wrong ways to use powers to explore the universe. The world-building is immersive and inventive, populated with surprising weapons and unnatural threats.
As things escalate, and the level of peril rises, the script’s strength lies in the fact that, despite the disturbing images and demonstration of power, Mary’s tale is rooted in her own skills; her brains, her bravery and her unwavering sense of loyalty. The climax is one that doesn’t see her evolve into a witch, but grow into a young person with a stronger sense of identity and home, and that gentle message turns Mary and the Witch’s Flower from a minor sub-Ghibli work into a charming young adult treat in its own right. It’s performed with gusto by the cast, yet delivered with the breeziest of touches – right down to the adorable end credits that will leave you singing the movie’s theme tune for weeks.