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Mary and the Witch's Flower (2017)

Summer is almost over, and Mary Smith is bored out of her mind. There are no kids to play with and she is far too clumsy to help out around the house of her Great Aunt Charlotte. One afternoon she meets a pair of cats who lead her into a nearby forest and discovers a glowing flower like nothing she has ever seen before. When she asks Zebedee, the local gardener, he tells her the flower is called a Fly by Night, a flower that used to be highly coveted by witches. Granting advanced magical aptitude to the user. Will Mary's discovery finally be the end of her misfortune or is her real misfortune only just beginning?

Mary and the Witch's Flower is the first animated feature film created by Studio Ponoc. A studio created by the film's producer Yoshiaki Nishimura. Hiromasa Yonebayashi (Director of The Secret World of Arrietty and When Marnie Was There), directed the film with a number of former Studio Ghibli veterans joining him in the production. Mary and the Witch's Flower is an adaptation of the English novel by Mary Stewart, “The Little Broomstick” making this the third English novel adaptation Yonebayashi has brought to life. The film was released in Japan on July 8th, 2017. It has since been acquired by GKIDS for a special premiere event in the United States on January 18th and a nationwide release as of January 19th, 2018.

Being the Studio Ghibli nut that I am, I was excited for Mary and the Witch's Flower merely on principle. I was eager to see exactly how the new Studio Ponoc was planning on breaking away from Ghibli and create a new identity for themselves. What I found was less of a breakaway, but more of a statement of intention. A statement that even if Ghibli may fade, Ponoc will be there to carry the torch of making high quality animated films to be enjoyed by young and old alike. Taking what they have learned to create new experiences that are in a way, reflections of themselves.

Needless to say, watching Mary and the Witch's Flower felt like putting on a comfortable pair of slippers. Similar to the older, well-worn pair with a hole in the bottom but with an extra spring in its step. A familiar comfortable experience but somehow still felt fresh and new.

"Your meant to look twice before you leap, she hardly looks at all." - Ms. Banks referring to Mary Smith.

Though I am unfamiliar with “The Little Broomstick” I really enjoyed what I was able to take away from the film. I enjoyed Mary's journey as she comes to accept her strengths and weaknesses after having an opportunity to dabble in magic. Her energy is contagious, courtesy of her animation and voice actress (Ruby Barnhill) and really helped make her an engaging child protagonist. She is quick to get into trouble but equally quick to get out of it and learn from her mistakes.

The world she inhabits is a blend of the beautiful English countryside and the floating island realm of Endor College. Each and every background looks like it was taken straight from a picture book. Though schools of magic are a dime a dozen nowadays, the world of Endor College sets itself apart by embracing scientific elements. Giving the idea that magic is more than just making something happen out of thin air. There is substance or physical law that makes spells that go into making spells work. Making the existence of the titular witch's flower, a sort magic enhancing mcguffin, all the more coveted by the film's antagonists. Said antagonists, Madam Mumblechook ( voiced by Kate Winslet) and Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent) may not be the most intimidating villains but their ambition is what makes them dangerous for Mary and those she cares about. Adequately raising the stakes as the movie progresses into its second and third acts.

Hiromasa Yonebayashi has a wonderful eye for animation. Allowing the audience to connect with characters through drawing attention to the 5 senses. Mary and the Witch's Flower is no exception. Though the plot is littered with fantastical settings and scenes, the animation in each one feels like a reflection of reality in some way. When a character falls, you can almost feel the weight of the fall (as it is happening and the aftermath). One of my favorite examples of this in the film is definitely the opening scene, depicting a daring escape on a broomstick. The animation goes a long way to depict the whipping wind and the heat of the blazing fire. All the while keeping a fast pace to drive home the urgency of the character's actions. I find it particularly fascinating how a film about witches and magic can feel so down to earth at the same time.

Not the way I would want to meet my new headmaster, no matter how incredible the school was.

That being said, there are still some fantastic visuals that are downright magical. Such as Madam Mumblechook manifesting herself out of fountain water, a complex invisibility spell, and a monstrous climax that still has me scratching my head asking, “How in the heck did they animate that?”

The credit for all of these accomplishments, I feel, goes not only to the director himself but also the animation team. Supervised by not only Takeshi Inamura, but also Ei Inoue and Akihiko Yamashita. Look up any of these animators (if you haven't already) and you will find an extensive list of credits. Many of which are not only classic Ghibli titles but a great deal of high profile animated films (Your Name, Boy and the Beast, etc). Many of the key animators, of which there were 43 (yes, I counted), all have a wide range of experiences that brought each scene of Mary and the Witch's Flower to life. Even before looking at the film credits (and discovering just how many of these animators may have worked together on earlier projects, Ghibli or otherwise), I got the sense of real cohesion in the animation. Like the animators were so familiar with each other's work, they knew exactly how to work together and compliment each other's styles. It was a real treat to be able to see the work of so many unique talents come together and make something that is able to stand on its own. A great deal of credit also goes to the background artists and in-between animators (of which there were too many to count) to bring the animation together.

Sadly, there wasn't a single moment in the film that truly surprised me or caught me off guard. That isn't to say the film is formulaic but for an adult, it is not exactly the kind of film that will challenge you very much. Still, the pacing is solid with quite a few scenes that I will not be forgetting anytime soon.
Mary comes across Tib, a local black cat that seems to be more than he lets on.

All in all, Mary and the Witch's Flower is a solid family film that is bound to entertain kids and adults alike. Kids will enjoy the magic and relatable main character, while adults can appreciate the hard work that clearly went into making this movie. Easily my favoriteYonebayashi film to date (though I still haven't seen When Marnie was There, so we will see if that sticks) and an excellent springboard for Studio Ponoc future projects.

1hr 42m

IN A NUTSHELL: Studio Ponoc takes flight with this magical outing.

Sincere thank you to Rose Ramseth and GKIDS for providing a screener of this film!

For the full list of animation credits, check out the Anime News Network Page to find your favorite animators who worked on this film!