My relationship with Japanese anime is what one might call ‘basic’. I, along with every other child of the time, was fully swept along with the Pokemon phenomenon wave of the late 90s/early 00s, and in the following years have sampled and enjoyed the highlights of the iconic Studio Ghibli like Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle and Princes Mononoke, but for a genre that inspires such intense fandom and devotion, I am merely an interested outsider! So back in I dipped for another round of anime fun, in the form of Mary And The Witch’s Flower, a first time feature by Studio Ponoc.
Based on Mary Stewart’s 1971 children’s novel The Little Broomstick, Mary And The Witch’s Flower tells the story of Mary Smith (Ruby Barnhill), a young girl who finds a mysterious flower in the woods and is transported to a magical school of witchcraft that, though seemingly wonderful and dazzling, isn’t quite what it seems. Alongside Peter (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), a boy from her village, Mary must summon the magic within herself to fight against the sinister plans of school leaders Madame Mumblechook (Kate Winslet) and Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent).
The first thing to say is that Mary And The Witch’s Flower is an aesthetically beautiful film. For someone who doesn’t watch anime regularly, it is such a refreshing experience to see an animated feature with such traditional feeling but visually appealing depth. The attention to detail in every single frame is exquisite, a real feast for the eyes. On a story telling level, the film never quite lives up to the potential that its first thirty or so minutes offer, with the third act of the narrative in particular feeling a little paint by numbers compared to the proceeding sequences. It feels somewhat lightweight in terms of the stakes of the story, with some interesting points left underdeveloped and undercooked in favour of a larger ‘good vs. evil’ type battle that plays out in the kind of predictable way that one can easily imagine.
Whilst the film’s narrative weight might leave something to be desired, what Mary And The Witch’s Flower does possess is heaps of heart and charm, and that can count for a lot when periods of a story start to get slightly foreseeable. At its core the film is about an awkward, clumsy girl, a girl who doesn’t feel comfortable in her own skin, who goes on a physical and mental journey to discover her self worth and hidden talents, and a theme like that is always going to put a smile on my face. The very best anime has the power to really challenge viewers with its themes and execution, and though Mary And The Witch’s Flower doesn’t particularly manage that, there is no doubting that there is pleasure in its simple story telling as the visuals take centre stage.
Watching dubbed versions of live action foreign films is something that I would never dream of doing, but for some reason (perhaps my formative years spent with Pokemon), it isn’t a problem that I have with anime. Voicing the role of Mary in the English dub is Ruby Barnhill, who provides a lively and energetic characterisation. I liked her in Spielberg’s 2016 adaptation of The BFG, and I liked her voice acting in this, so no complaints from me!
A little more recognisable Hollywood heft is brought to proceedings by Kate Winslet as villainous headmistress Madame Mumblechook and Jim Broadbent as creepy scientist Doctor Dee. I guess we’re at a point now where Winslet is playing elderly women, and she voices her well and adds a touch of campy fun to the story before the true intentions of her character are revealed. Broadbent is channeling some leftover Professor Slughorn in his voice characterisation of Doctor Dee, and together the two big names seem to strike an effective partnership in oral form (stop it…). Ultimately, any film like this is going to be more about the visuals than the voices, and I’m sure a few things will have been lost in translation along the way, but for the most part, all involved did a great job of bringing a familiar tongue to the Japanese art form.
Overall, Mary And The Witch’s Flower is a visually impressive magical adventure that, whilst not possessing the same emotional heft and connection as some of Studio Ghibli’s greatest works, still offers a charming, fun and slightly more mature feeling children’s film than pretty much anything you will find outside of Pixar in Western animated filmmaking. It is simple but worth while, and in a way feels like a perfect sort of ‘starter movie’ for any kid looking to get in to the weird and wonderful world of Japanese anime.