The first feature production of the new Japanese animation house Studio Ponoc — founded by veterans of Hayao Miyazaki’s celebrated Studio Ghibli in the wake of Miyazaki's supposed retirement — Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a film modest in temperament but ambitious in effect. Adapted from Mary Stewart’s 1971 children’s book The Little Broomstick and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, its slight story and simple characters still build to eye-popping and even unsettling imagery. It may not quite match the best of the Ghibli classics, which gathered complexity and resonance as they went along: a child’s coming of age could transform into a disturbing metaphysical adventure; a classic legend could become a nuanced meditation on environment and identity. But what Mary and the Witch’s Flower lacks in dimensionality, it makes up for in wonderment.
The story follows Mary (voiced in this English version by Ruby Barnhill), a young girl who has just moved to a new country home to live with her aunt, and is preparing anxiously for the ridicule and scorn she believes is inevitable from the other kids; she hates her frizzy red hair, she has no friends and she’s a klutz. But after chancing upon a rare, mysterious flower that blooms once every seven years, she’s whisked away instead to a vast castle in the clouds called Endor College, a school for witches and warlocks where novices learn to cast spells, pilot brooms and otherwise control magic powers. Yes, it sounds vaguely Harry Potter-ish: It’s not long before Mary discovers that she is destined for great things, and that her personal story is connected to events that transpired long before her arrival in the world.
Endor College is run by domineering headmistress Madam Mumblechook (Kate Winslet) and the oddball Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent). It’s a realm of eerie beauty — alternating between steampunk bustle and space-age grandeur, a place of water-holograms and tornadoes of light, where fish sentries buzz about and people are carried on puffs of clouds. Yonebayashi fills his frame with exploding colors and dazzling details; it's at times so gorgeous and intricate that you might not know where to look. And deep within Endor’s recesses are even more surreal sights — hybrid creatures that look like lizards mixed with flowers, bears blended with butterflies, peacocks crossed with mushrooms. (Watch this movie high at your own risk.) It’s all lovely, and disturbing — slowly, Mary comes to the knowledge that there might be something monstrous about this place.
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There are hints of themes here — about the limits of power and about learning to accept yourself as you are — but the chief pleasures of Mary and the Witch’s Flower are visual. The charm of a fantastical hand-drawn work like this is that it reconnects us to the primal wonder of the image. The computer-generated razzle-dazzle of most contemporary animation has the shape and depth to convince us (at least on some subconscious level) that it's taking place in the real world, or some variation thereof. But the two-dimensional, hand-drawn images of Witch's Flower have a different pull: They seduce us with the knowledge that they were created by somebody, that they sprung from an imagination. All these films, of course, are created by people — talented, creative ones. But texture and imperfection reveal what the gloss otherwise hides. Mary and the Witch's Flower and its eye-popping cavalcade of creations and colors speak not to the shock and awe of technology but to the can-do magic of human achievement.