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Review: 'Mary and the Witch's Flower'

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Mary and the Witch's Flower (メアリと魔女の花 or Mary to Majo no Hana in Japanese) is the first feature-length film to be released by Studio Ponoc. The film was released in Japan in July 2017 and had a limited theatrical run in the United States in early 2018 prior to its home video release. It is based on the 1971 children's novel The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart (which I haven't read and cannot comment on how closely it follows). At a high level, the film could be described as a sort of Harry Potter meets Kiki's Delivery Service. Some anime fans have noted similarities to the anime series Little Witch Academia.

This is the third film directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi. It is no coincidence that the art style of the film closely resembles the works of Studio Ghibli, as Yonebayashi had previously worked there and was director of The Secret World of Arrietty and When Marnie Was There. Producer Yoshiaki Nishimura and many others who worked on the film were also alumni of Studio Ghibli, which had largely disbanded its creative department following the release of Marnie in 2014. The characters of Mary, Madam Mumblechook, and Doctor Dee are voiced by Ruby Barnhill, Kate Winslet, and Jim Broadbent respectively in the English dub (Hana Sugisaki, Yuki Amami, and Fumio Kohinata respectively in the original Japanese).

Plot summary

As Mary and the Witch's Flower's opens, we see workers struggling to contain by an experiment gone awry while a red-haired girl carrying a satchel escapes the facility. She is spotted and summons her broom to make her escape as the workers transform into flying creatures to continue the pursuit. The experiment fails catastrophically and the girl is knocked off her broom as she, the broom, and the satchel fall to the forest below. The satchel opens to reveal purple seeds that cause everything around them to grow rapidly.

Mary, a young girl who hates her frizzy red-hair, has moved ahead of her parents to live with at the British estate of her Great Aunt Charlotte. She finds it boring, her attempts to help out around the house and the garden don't go well, and her initial encounter with a local boy named Peter leaves her looking foolish. Later, she follows a pair of cats into a nearby forest where she discovers some strange purple flowers. Zebedee the gardener tells her they are called "fly-by-nights" and are rare and highly sought after by witches.

The next day, Tib, one of the two cats, beckons her to follow him into the forest. She finds the old broom, and when she accidentally breaks one of the flower pods, the broom comes to life. Moments later, Mary and Tib are riding it high into the sky where it takes them to a mysterious place. After a crash landing she is scolded by Flanagan, an anthro creature who calls himself the broom stable master, who leads Mary to Endor College, a school for witches. There she meets headmistress Madam Mumblechook, who believes her to be a very talented but untrained witch, and Tib her familiar, and Mary doesn't bother correcting her even though she knows it's the fly-by-night that gave her witch powers. During a tour of the college, Mary is introduced to the eccentric Doctor Dee and she learns that the college specializes in transformation magic. By the end of the tour there are hints of darker things going on at the college, but then the truth comes out that Mary isn't a real witch and her abilities that day were due to the fly-by-night.

Back at her great aunt's estate, Mary is ready to dismiss it all as a one-time adventure, until word arrives that Peter has gone missing. Then Mary receives a message from Madam Mumblechook that she's kidnapped Peter and wants Mary to bring her the fly-by-nights in exchange for his release.

Flanagan, broomstick wrangler

Impressions

Is it furry? For the most part the answer is not really, but it meets the minimum requirements to answer that yes on account of the supporting character Flanagan, a sort of stout anthro fox (though some features appear more rodent-like) who makes several appearances. During the tour of Endor College we see a few other anthros in menial roles. Tib and Gib are two mostly normal cats who at times display above-normal-cat levels of intelligence and emotion. Later in the film we see a herd of animals that resembles something out of Princess Mononoke. The transformation aspect of the story might appeal to some. Finally, the broomstick itself proves to be quite an interesting character, much like the magic carpet from Aladdin.

My overall impression? On the whole, I would rate the film to be on par with at least the non-Miyazaki films from Studio Ghibli, including Yonebayashi's previous films and others such as From Up On Poppy Hill, Whisper of the Heart, and The Tale of Princess Kaguya. Possibly the most common complaint viewers have had about the film is that it's yet another story about witches and magic schools that follows many of the same tropes, and in that, I think they have a point, notwithstanding that The Little Broomstick, the children's novel it's based upon, predates most of those other works. There were a couple of points in the story that didn't work for me but they were minor flaws and overall the story worked well. Artistically the film is excellent, with plenty of eye-popping wow moments especially in the backgrounds and the special effects. The English dub voice acting gives the film a decidedly British feel. The musical score by Takatsugu Muramatsu makes good use of orchestra and traditional instruments to set the mood. If Studio Ponoc aspires to be the spiritual successor of Studio Ghibli, I'd say they're off to a good start. It's rated PG and should be okay for most children who are at least school age. 4/5

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