by Kim Morrissy,

Mary and the Witch's Flower
It is Tib the black cat who leads Mary to the strange flower in the woods. When she discovers a little broomstick shortly afterwards, she is astonished to feel it jump in to action. Before she can gather her wits, it is whisking her over the treetops, above the clouds, and in to the grounds of Endor College, where: 'All Examinations Coached for by A Competent Staff of Fully-Qualified Witches.'

“Who will be the next Miyazaki?” is a question that is often asked, but it's yet to receive a satisfying answer. Hayao Miyazaki's personality has dominated the Studio Ghibli brand for so long that it's doubtful that anyone else from the studio could match his reputation. Yet if Mary and The Witch's Flower proves one thing, it's that Studio Ghibli has nurtured enough talent to match Miyazaki's raw skill.

Mary and The Witch's Flower is Hiromasa Yonebayashi's third feature film—and his first since leaving Studio Ghibli. It's a delightful children's fantasy film that perfectly captures the charm and whimsy of a classic Ghibli tale, but with a more updated, modern look. In essence, Mary and The Witch's Flower combines the work of a small group of Studio Ghibli stalwarts with some of the best talents of TV and film animation today.

The new additions may not be obvious at first glance, given how closely the film replicates the Studio Ghibli style. From the story (which is based off the 1971 English novel The Little Broomstick) to the character designs, Mary and The Witch's Flower strongly resembles The Secret World of Arrietty, one of Yonebayashi's previous films at Ghibli. This time, Yonebayashi has even gone out of his way to incorporate visual homages to classic Ghibli films, like a certain character's reversion to an old woman's form as in Howl's Moving Castle. This is the film that Yonebayashi has said he poured twenty years of his life at Studio Ghibli into, and it very much shows.

Mary and The Witch's Flower may be striving for Ghibli 2.0 status, but there are enough quirks to assure me that the new Studio Ponoc is not resistant to change. The staff list includes plenty of names from the TV anime industry such as Suguru Karube, who worked on Ghibli's My Neighbors the Yamadas as a CG director, but now works on TV titles like Re:ZERO -Starting Life in Another World- . CG and digital effects are more prevalent in Mary and The Witch's Flower, which has received the biggest visual upgrade since Yonebayashi's last directorial effort. Many of the film's most complex visual effects, like the swirling water and flickering fires, are hand-drawn in the Studio Ghibli house style, but the magic sequences feature some well-integrated digital effects alongside the hand-drawn animation. The film overall has a clean look, and although the screen is constantly full of movement, there are never any scenes that appear too cluttered or busy.

The backgrounds are also lush and breathtaking to look at. They may not be drawn by the great Kazuo Oga, the man who hand-painted the backgrounds of so many key Ghibli films, but the backgrounds do achieve a similar level of detail and picturesque beauty. According to the credits, some of these backgrounds were outsourced to Studio Pablo, a background Art Studio famous within the TV and film anime industry for their meticulously hand-painted landscapes. Not only does Mary and The Witch's Flower perfectly captures the look and feel of an English countryside, it particularly shines with its depiction of Endō.r College, a school of witchcraft. There's also a lot of care put into the background characters and details, making the whole world come alive even when the narrative fails to explore its setting in detail.

This is a very good thing, because the story (which has been described as a “proto-Harry Potter” of sorts) is one of the weaker aspects of the film. It's a fun adventure romp, although the story is really too simple to stand out much in its own right. The same thing applies to the characters, who are likable but are characterized only in broad strokes. This is understandable, given that the story is based off a very short novel. The greatest strength of the original story was its vivid and lyrical descriptions, making the world it takes place in feel very tangible despite the brevity of its plot. This same quality is on display in the film, too, which succeeds more because of its attention to detail than anything else. Even brief asides in the novel like “The little broomstick gave a leap, a violent twist, a kick like the kick of a pony” are faithfully recreated in visual form.

Overall, Mary and The Witch's Flower is a strong effort from a newly assembled studio and a solid film in its own right. It's true that the film does play a little too much by the book, but when each frame is as lovingly crafted as they are here, it's hard to begrudge the film for it. Yonebayashi loves Ghibli, and after twenty years of working in the studio, he understands perhaps better than anyone else the immersive, wondrous nature of Ghibli's fantasy films. In Mary and The Witch's Flower, he succeeds in capturing that quality, and for that reason alone this film is worthy of praise.

Having said that, there's definitely a lot of potential for Studio Ponoc to carve out a different path from Ghibli, given all the new talent that worked on this film. As much as I enjoyed Mary and The Witch's Flower, Yonebayashi's best work is still When Marnie Was There, a quiet and melancholy film that prioritized atmosphere over fantasy adventures. Yonebayashi and his team have displayed the ability to create innovative new work, but they've chosen to honor their mentors here. Mary and The Witch's Flower is a beautifully crafted film that succeeds in everything it sets out to do, but I am hoping for something with a little more ambition next time.

Overall : A-
Story : B+
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A-

+ Captures the charm of Ghibli fantasy films, excellent animation and digital effects
Story is a little too by the book, copies Ghibli's style a bit too slavishly

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Production Info:
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Riko Sakaguchi
Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Music: Takatsugu Muramatsu
Original creator: Mary Stewart
Art Director: Tomotaka Kubo
Animation Director: Takeshi Inamura
Art design: Tomoya Imai
Sound Director: Koji Kasamatsu
Cgi Director: Suguru Karube
Director of Photography: Toru Fukushi
Producer: Yoshiaki Nishimura

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Mary and the Witch's Flower (movie)

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