Starring: Ruby Barnhill, Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent
Directed By: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Running Time: 103 Minutes
UK Release Date: 4 May 2018
BBFC Certificate: U
One Christmas afternoon a few years back I was surrounded by noisy nephews and other family members, so I retreated to the front room to watch a film that’s I’d heard very good things about called Spirited Away (2001). One by one my relatives came to join me and was captivated by what was on screen, even though they didn’t really understand what was going on.
This was my introduction to the wonderful films made by Studio Ghibli, and when I recommend any of their movies to those who have never heard of them I always say that they are the Japanese Disney. Since that Christmas I have seen pretty much every Studio Ghibli production and was saddened to hear that the studio was halting productions back in 2014, following the retirement of co-founder and director Hayao Miyazaki (although it hasn’t completely gone away).
But whenever one door closes another opens as Ghibli producer Yoshiaki Nishimura founded Studio Ponoc (Ponoc signifying midnight, for a new day) in 2015 with the aim to produce animated feature films with the look and feel of early Ghibli films. They have achieved perfectly with this their debut, Mary and the Witch’s Flower. For example, the Studio Ponoc’s logo at the start of the film has an image of the star of its first film, Mary, which is a homage to the image of Totoro used for the Ghibli films.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower is based on the book The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, and tells the story of a young girl named Mary (Barnhill), who moves in with her Great Aunt Charlotte in the countryside. Bored and restless, she befriends local boy Peter (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) and his cats, Tib and Gib, who leads her to a glowing flower, and later to a broomstick that whisks her high above in the clouds to the Endor Collage for witches and warlocks. There she meets headmistress Madame Mumblechook (Winslet) and Doctor Dee (Broadbent) who have a history with the flower and will try to get their hands on it no matter the cost to Mary or anyone else.
On the surface this movie can easilt be compared to Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) as we have a young girl with a black cat on a broomstick, and, unsurprisingly, this film has a lot of familiar trademarks associated with the Ghibli films. For example, we have a strong-willed female protagonist, a call to adventure from the mundane and boring real world, the use of magic, an array of strange and wonderful creatures, a moving orchestral score, and above all spectacular 2D animation.
None of this is a bad thing and it by no means feels like a tick box or simple imitation. It truly feels like a continuation of Studio Ghibli and its heritage, yet sets the groundwork for what I hope are many other films to come. Indeed, it’s a must for fans of animation in general.
Also unsurprisingly, Studio Ponoc recruited many talented staff and animators from Ghibli and you can tell by the character designs, how they move, the beautifully detailed static backgrounds and the fact that some shots within the collage contain so much activity that you will have to re-watch them multiple times just to pick up on everything. I also found it hard to differentiate if any shots had been touched up with CGI animation, and I would be surprised to know if they had.
I feel I can’t write much more about this film unless I give away a lot of the plot and events, but as per a lot of children’s stories not all is as it seems and the audience gets sucked into the world and mystery through Mary’s eyes. There is a lot of fun and wonder in this film but also a bit of darkness – nothing that would traumatize a child, though.
Like Spirited Away (2001) and a lot of other children’s stories the film’s overall message is not to take some things for granted, and to be thankful for what you have. All in all this is a great film to watch for young and old, and especially if you’re a fan of magic and Harry Potter. It says something that the kids attending the preview screening were quiet throughout, captivated by what was on screen.
Overall Verdict: A strong debut from Studio Ponoc with all the elements that fans of Studio Ghibli know and love. There’s a captivating and magical story, great pacing and absolutely stunning 2D animation. This film is a must see for fans of Anime and Studio Ghibli, and a great introduction for those new to the genre.
Reviewer: George Elcombe