Hard that it is to quite keep up with the retirements and renewals of Studio Ghibli, the day of a new Japanese animation studio has dawned. Literally so, for Studio Ponoc takes its name from a Serbo-Croatian word referring to the beginning of a new day. There is, however, a great deal that is familiar about their visually gorgeous debut feature: Mary and the Witch’s Flower.
A Japonist adaptation of Mary Stewart’s 1971 children’s book, The Little Broomstick, Mary and the Witch’s Flower yarn a tale of magic, red-hair and mythical blue flowers. When the young, spirited Mary Smith (Hana Sugisaki, Ruby Barnhill in the English dub) is forced to live with her Great Aunt Charlotte (Shinobu Otake/Lynda Baron) she finds herself bored and friendless. ‘I doubt anything good will ever happen in my life’ she laments to a black cat with whom she relates – both are seen as harbingers of bad look.
Naturally, it is not long before this feline plot device leads Mary into a lusciously green Norfolk wood, where she soon finds the titular witch’s flower. Known as a ‘Fly-by-Night’, this rare flower is a unique child of that specific wood and blooms only once every seven years. It is also desperately sought by the power-hungry headmistress of Endor College, Madame Mumblechook (Yūki Arnami/Kate Winslet), for its extraordinary magical abilities.
Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi is no stranger to translating English children’s literature to Japanese anime – having spun Arrietty from The Borrowers and worked as animator on Howl’s Moving Castle – and perhaps Stewart’s novel was not the only inspiration in this case. Certainly, there are touches here of Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree adventures and Jill Murphy’s Worst Witch, whilst the Byzantine-Gothic designed Endor Collage is very much in the vein of Hogwarts.
Whether intended or not, these callbacks are the drawbacks of the film. A pervading sense of déjà vu hovers, broomstick-like, over a story that ever so slightly drags here, resulting in a whole that lacks the distinction of Yonebayashi’s Oscar-nominated When Marnie Was There. Whereas that film, another descendent of English storytelling, transferred the action to Japan, Mary and the Witch’s Flower roots itself in some odd-middle ground, one which is both pre- and post- industrial Britain.
On the other hand – even if the film’s plot is somewhat slight – the quality of animation here is a reliable triumph. Sure enough, Studio Ponoc have recruited many of Ghibli’s former staff and delightful landscapes provide backdrops to each sweetly realised frame here. It is in moments of spell-work that the film really comes alive, however, with sparkling displays that remind both of John Hambley’s 1989 BFG and the first time you ever saw a sparkler as a child.
Perhaps it is too long and high-minded for younger audiences, whilst being rather too indistinct for the older ones who have seen this all before, but there is beauty here enough to offer charming pleasure to all.