Mary and the Witch's Flower

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   Mary and the Witch's Flower
 

Mary Smith's (voice of Ruby Barnhill, "The BFG") efforts to make herself useful at her Great-Aunt Charlotte's (voice of Lynda Baron) house prove frustrating to housekeeper Miss Banks (voice of Morwenna Banks) and gardener Zebedee (voice of Rasmus Hardiker). One day, a black cat leads her into the forest where she finds and picks a Fly-by-Night, a flower Zebedee tells her blossoms only once every seven years.  She learns the cat's name is Tib and it belongs to Peter (voice of Louis Ashbourne Serkis), a village boy who teases her into returning to the forest where Tib drops a blossom that enchants an old broomstick in "Mary and the Witch's Flower."

Laura:
That little broomstick flies Mary and Tib over the clouds, landing in a strange place where Flanagan (voice of Ewen Bremner, "Trainspotting") admires her flying skills.  She's at Endor College, a school for witches whose headmistress, Madam Mumblechook (voice of Kate Winslet), compliments the red hair Mary hates.  Suddenly the young girl who could do nothing right appears to do no wrong.  Gratified, she takes a tour of the school, impressing Doctor Dee's (voice of Jim Broadbent) chemistry class with her invisibility skills, but after visiting Mumblechook's Personal Museum of Magic, where she inadvertently steals a spell book, Mary's alert system kicks in.

This is the first film from Studio Ponoc, formed to keep the legacy of Studio Ghibli alive. Cowriter/director Hiromasa Yonebayashi ("When Marnie Was There"), adapting Mary Stewart's 1971 classic children's book 'The Little Broomstick,' was an animator on Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" and it shows, Mumblechook a variation of that film's twin sisters Yubaba and Zeniba, Dee like Kamaji, Dee's students like its No-Face.  But where "Spirited Away" had a surreal quality, this film is more straightforward, its story a 'Wizard of Oz/Island of Doctor Moreau' mashup.

The visuals are colorful and lush, the story turning darker than many children's tales, Dee's attempts to turn animals into magical beings producing nothing but suffering failures, Mumblechook's courting of Mary not as benevolent as she'd have her believe.  The film's opening sequence is one of its best, a flashback prologue whose protagonist's connection to the present won't be hard to guess.

"Mary and the Witch's Flower" provides a richer experience for kids than most American animations, but adult animation fans may find it warmed over Ghibli, its visuals and storyline all too familiar. (Ghibli's cofounder, Hayao Miyazaki, hasn't retired after all, and neither has his studio closed up shop - "Boro the Caterpillar" is now in preproduction).

Grade: B-

Robin:
Before its closing (?) in 2017, Studio Ghibli was a trailblazer in both sumptuous animation and magical storytelling. The heir to Hayao Miyazaki’s anime throne, Studio Pocon, picks up the mantle with its first fantasy animation feature, “Mary and the Witch’s Broom.”

Adapted from the 1971 children’s fantasy tale, “The Little Broom,” by Mary Stewart, the story begins with the daring escape of a young, red-headed girl from the clutches of dastardly creatures. She has a very special package that she has to spirit away from the evil masters of the sinister castle and, with the help of a little magic broom, she makes her break out.

The story shifts to young Mary (Ruby Barnhill) who is living with her Great Aunt Charlotte  (Lynda Baron) on her country estate. The girl simply wants to help around the manor but every time she tries, things go wrong. The ensuing boredom leads to a series of magical adventures when her friend Peter’s (Louis Ashborne Serkis) cat, Tib, leads her into the forbidden forest where she finds the little broom and a special flower called fly-by-night.

The flower, according to the estate’s gardener Zebedee (Rasmus Hardiker), blooms only once every seven years and it is sought by witches for its magical powers. Mary crushes one of the flowers and releases its magic – for Mary and the little broom. The broom transports Mary and Tib to Endor Castle, the school for magic run by Madame Mumblechook (Kate Winslet) and Dr. Dee (Jim Broadbent).

Director and co-writer Hiromasa Yonebayashi has two helming credits under his belt with “The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)” and “When Marnie Was There (2014).” Both of those films also deal with supernatural or mythical elements but on a quiet, personal level. “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” is far more ambitious in its tale of magic gone awry.

“Mary…” has more akin to Miyazaki’s wonderful fantasy and magic adventures like “Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)” and “Spirited Away (2001)” than his own first two films. This is a more ambitious work with its Hogwarts-gone-evil school of magic and the nefarious plans to turn all humans into witches by Madame and the doctor.

The ambitions of “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” are not quite up to those of Yonabayashi’s mentor, Miyazaki, but, heck, this is the director’s first foray into the epic story realm of the maestro. The result is a fine animated feature that carries a good, strong message for its younger femme audience. Mary is a good role model whose promise and loyalty to friends is the most important thing. I give it a B.
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