‘Mary and the Witch’s Flower’ Film Review: Studio Ghibli Vets Make Magic

A lovingly crafted fantasy on an epic scale, “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” is a film about transformation made by filmmakers in transition.

Directed by Studio Ghibli veteran Hiromasa Yonebayashi (2015 Oscar nominee for Ghibli’s “When Marnie Was There”), this action-packed tale of a young witch coming into her power is the first feature from Studio Ponoc, the aspiring animation powerhouse headed by longtime Ghibli lead producer Yoshiaki Nishimura (Oscar nominee in 2014 for producing Ghibli’s “The Tale of Princess Kaguya”).

Yonebayashi and Nishimura have based their film on Mary Stewart’s 1971 YA novel “The Little Broomstick,” a storybook the six-year-old J. K. Rowling must have found in her Christmas stocking. In the movie version, awkward but plucky schoolgirl Mary (voice of Ruby Barnhill in the GKIDS English language dub) encounters an old broom and an enchanted flower deep in a British forest. Red-haired Mary plucks the flower and is given awesome but temporary powers when its nectar spills on her hands.

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Mary is in no way prepared to be a spellcaster, first class, as becomes apparent when her little broom comes to life and whisks her away to the frothily surreal campus of a secret magic academy. There the evil headmistress Madame Mumblechook (Kate Winslet, clearly having a ball) spots Mary using her temporary powers and mistakes her for a witching prodigy.

When Mumblechook realizes Mary is a fake, she plots with her mad scientist sidekick Doctor Dee (a deliciously fatuous Jim Broadbent) to harness Mary’s flower power for evil and reshape the world. Or something like that. It’s never entirely clear what Mumblechook and Dee are up to, though it seems to involve transforming the human race into magical butterfly people. Whatever it is, it’s bad, and brave Little Mary and her best pal Peter are the only ones who can stop them, in a war of magic vs. goodness that finds just the right balance between big action set-pieces and “Alice in Wonderland” whimsy.

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By lavishing his considerable design skills on a world equal parts Hogworts and steampunk sci-fi, Yonebayashi recalls the great French animatior Paul Grimault’s masterpiece “Le Roi et L’Oiseau,” which also recast fairytale tropes for the machine age. Yonebayashi’s visual imagination seems limitless. Mumblechook’s magic academy brims with so many strange creatures and ectoplasmic oddities, it’s a strain trying to catch them all. The tentacled and legless Doctor Dee’s broken cybernetic form conveys his entire backstory as a reckless obsessive whose failed experiments cost him spectacularly in the past.

Ponoc (the name is Croatian for “New Day” or “Zero Hour”) was founded after Studio Ghibli dissolved its production department in 2014, and many of its staff are Ghibli veterans. The Ghibli comparisons are inevitable, and they may even be welcome; producer Nishimura has repeatedly stated his goal as preserving Ghibli’s role in creating first-rate family fare.

But despite its strong female protagonist and a “concerned” subplot about animal experimentation, “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” owes more to MGM’s escapist classic “The Wizard of Oz” than it does to “Kiki’s Delivery Service.” Though Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki enjoyed wild success, he’s still a fundamentally personal filmmaker, who populates his fantastic worlds with flawed heroes and a deep skein of pessimism about human motivations untypical in mainstream animated fare.

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It diminishes “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” not at all to call it the work of a more straightforward fantasist. Yonebayashi’s unwavering faith in the clear values and direct narrative structures of a good storybook energize his rousing entertainment with sweep and drive.

Ponoc and Yonebayashi have managed the difficult task of demonstrating an older tradition’s durability while making a film that speaks for itself. Though Miyazaki has recently announced he will come out of retirement to make yet another “final film,” the Ghibli torch seems to be passing. If “Mary” is an indication, Ponoc looks to be just the company who will use it to make a fire of its own.



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A lovingly crafted fantasy on an epic scale, “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” is a film about transformation made by filmmakers in transition.

Directed by Studio Ghibli veteran Hiromasa Yonebayashi (2015 Oscar nominee for Ghibli’s “When Marnie Was There”), this action-packed tale of a young witch coming into her power is the first feature from Studio Ponoc, the aspiring animation powerhouse headed by longtime Ghibli lead producer Yoshiaki Nishimura (Oscar nominee in 2014 for producing Ghibli’s “The Tale of Princess Kaguya”).

Yonebayashi and Nishimura have based their film on Mary Stewart’s 1971 YA novel “The Little Broomstick,” a storybook the six-year-old J. K. Rowling must have found in her Christmas stocking. In the movie version, awkward but plucky schoolgirl Mary (voice of Ruby Barnhill in the GKIDS English language dub) encounters an old broom and an enchanted flower deep in a British forest. Red-haired Mary plucks the flower and is given awesome but temporary powers when its nectar spills on her hands.

Mary is in no way prepared to be a spellcaster, first class, as becomes apparent when her little broom comes to life and whisks her away to the frothily surreal campus of a secret magic academy. There the evil headmistress Madame Mumblechook (Kate Winslet, clearly having a ball) spots Mary using her temporary powers and mistakes her for a witching prodigy.

When Mumblechook realizes Mary is a fake, she plots with her mad scientist sidekick Doctor Dee (a deliciously fatuous Jim Broadbent) to harness Mary’s flower power for evil and reshape the world. Or something like that. It’s never entirely clear what Mumblechook and Dee are up to, though it seems to involve transforming the human race into magical butterfly people. Whatever it is, it’s bad, and brave Little Mary and her best pal Peter are the only ones who can stop them, in a war of magic vs. goodness that finds just the right balance between big action set-pieces and “Alice in Wonderland” whimsy.

By lavishing his considerable design skills on a world equal parts Hogworts and steampunk sci-fi, Yonebayashi recalls the great French animatior Paul Grimault’s masterpiece “Le Roi et L’Oiseau,” which also recast fairytale tropes for the machine age. Yonebayashi’s visual imagination seems limitless. Mumblechook’s magic academy brims with so many strange creatures and ectoplasmic oddities, it’s a strain trying to catch them all. The tentacled and legless Doctor Dee’s broken cybernetic form conveys his entire backstory as a reckless obsessive whose failed experiments cost him spectacularly in the past.

Ponoc (the name is Croatian for “New Day” or “Zero Hour”) was founded after Studio Ghibli dissolved its production department in 2014, and many of its staff are Ghibli veterans. The Ghibli comparisons are inevitable, and they may even be welcome; producer Nishimura has repeatedly stated his goal as preserving Ghibli’s role in creating first-rate family fare.

But despite its strong female protagonist and a “concerned” subplot about animal experimentation, “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” owes more to MGM’s escapist classic “The Wizard of Oz” than it does to “Kiki’s Delivery Service.” Though Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki enjoyed wild success, he’s still a fundamentally personal filmmaker, who populates his fantastic worlds with flawed heroes and a deep skein of pessimism about human motivations untypical in mainstream animated fare.

It diminishes “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” not at all to call it the work of a more straightforward fantasist. Yonebayashi’s unwavering faith in the clear values and direct narrative structures of a good storybook energize his rousing entertainment with sweep and drive.

Ponoc and Yonebayashi have managed the difficult task of demonstrating an older tradition’s durability while making a film that speaks for itself. Though Miyazaki has recently announced he will come out of retirement to make yet another “final film,” the Ghibli torch seems to be passing. If “Mary” is an indication, Ponoc looks to be just the company who will use it to make a fire of its own.

Related stories from TheWrap:

How Japan's 'In This Corner of the World' Captures 1940s Hiroshima Before the A-Bomb

'Princess Mononoke' Turns 20: 10 Things You Probably Didn't Know About The Animated Classic (Photos)

'Your Name' Director Makoto Shinkai on Updating the Body-Swap Movie

How a Little Company Called GKIDS Keeps Crashing the Oscar Animation Category

‘Mary And The Witch’s Flower’ Director On Exploring World Of Magic Through The Eyes Of A Young Girl

Coming up in the animation ranks at Studio Ghibli as an in-between and key animator before making his directorial debut with The Secret World of Arrietty, and earning his first Oscar nomination for 2014’s When Marnie Was There, Japanese director Hiromasa Yonebayashi struck out on his own this year with Mary and the Witch’s Flower.
Based on The Little Broomstick by English novelist Mary Stewart, this dynamic first feature from Yoshiaki Nishimura’s Studio Ponoc tells the…

Coming up in the animation ranks at Studio Ghibli as an in-between and key animator before making his directorial debut with The Secret World of Arrietty, and earning his first Oscar nomination for 2014’s When Marnie Was There, Japanese director Hiromasa Yonebayashi struck out on his own this year with Mary and the Witch’s Flower. Based on The Little Broomstick by English novelist Mary Stewart, this dynamic first feature from Yoshiaki Nishimura’s Studio Ponoc tells the…

‘Mary and The Witch’s Flower’ Trailer: Studio Ponoc’s First Film Keeps the Spirit of Studio Ghibli Alive

Ponoc’s first anime fantasy film premieres in the summer in Japan.

Studio Ponoc has released a new trailer for its upcoming anime fantasy film “Mary and the Witch’s Flower.” Directed by Ponoc’s co-founder Hiromasa Yonebayashi, the film marks the Japanese studio’s inaugural production, following its opening in April 2015. Yonebayashi founded Ponoc with producer Yoshiaki Nishimura, former staffers at Ghibli, the studio behind anime classics such as “Spirited Away” (2001) and “My Neighbor Toronto” (1988), which closed in 2014.

READ MORE: ‘Mary and the Witch’s Flower’ Trailer: Ex-Studio Ghibli Staffers Reveal Sweeping New Project

“Mary and the Witch’s Flower” is based on Mary Stewart’s 1971 children’s book “The Little Broomstick,” with a screenplay by Riko Sakaguchi (“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”). It follows the story of a little girl who, after being sent to her great aunt’s house, gains magical powers but only for one night.

As reported by UK’s The Telegraph in December, Nishimura says that the film is for children who are “moving into the 21st century… I think we all had a vision of what the world would be like, but it’s not the one we’re moving into. So what filmmakers should say at a time when people are losing hope – and what kind of film might help restore it in our children – are big themes for right now.” This is Yonebayashi’s third film, following Ghibli’s “When Marnie Was There” and “The Secret World of Arrietty.”

READ MORE: ‘Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter’ Trailer: Studio Ghibli’s First Series Will Stream on Amazon

“Mary and the Witch’s Flower” premieres in the summer in Japan. Watch the new trailer below.

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New Japan Animation Firm Studio Ponoc Unveils ‘Witch’s Flower’

TOKYO – “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” has been set as the first film to emerge from Studio Ponoc, a new animation firm established by former Studio Ghibli director Hiromasa Yonebayashi and producer Yoshiaki Nishimura. The project is based on the classic children’s book “The Littlest Broomstick” by Mary Stewart. “Flower” is set for a 2017 release,… Read more »

TOKYO – “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” has been set as the first film to emerge from Studio Ponoc, a new animation firm established by former Studio Ghibli director Hiromasa Yonebayashi and producer Yoshiaki Nishimura. The project is based on the classic children’s book “The Littlest Broomstick” by Mary Stewart. “Flower” is set for a 2017 release,... Read more »

‘Mary and the Witch’s Flower’ Trailer: Ex-Studio Ghibli Staffers Reveal Sweeping New Project

The film will be the first production from Studio Ponoc, co-founded by Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Yoshiaki Nishimura.

In 2014, Studio Ghibli announced that it would no longer produce feature films following director Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement. Its last work to date was Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s “When Marnie Was There,” about an adolescent girl who becomes obsessed with an abandoned mansion and a mysterious girl who lives there. Now, Yonebayashi and producer Yoshiaki Nishimura have founded a new company Studio Ponoc, which has employed many ex-Ghibli staffers, and will soon release its first production: “Mary and the Witch’s Flower.” Watch a short trailer for the film below, courtesy of Slate.

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Adapted from Mary Stewart’s children’s book “The Little Broomstick” by Riko Sakaguchi (“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”), the film follows a little girl who embarks on an adventure after being exiled to her great aunt’s house. It will be Yonebayashi’s third film following Ghibli’s “When Marnie Was There” and “The Secret World of Arrietty.”

As reported by the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin, Nishimura says that the film will be for children who are “moving into the 21st century.” “I think we all had a vision of what the world would be like,” he continues, “but it’s not the one we’re moving into. So what filmmakers should say at a time when people are losing hope – and what kind of film might help restore it in our children – are big themes for right now.”

READ MORE: Hayao Miyazaki Calls Artificial Intelligence Animation ‘An Insult To Life Itself’

Mary and the Witch’s Flower” will premiere in summer 2017 in Japan.

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