Mark Reviews Movies

Mary and the Witch's Flower


2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Cast: The voices of Ruby Barnhill, Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent, Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Lynda Baron, Ewen Bremner

MPAA Rating: PG (for some action and thematic elements)

Running Time: 1:42

Release Date: 1/19/18 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 18, 2018

There is no denying that Mary and the Witch's Flower is a sumptuous visual experience. It's the first movie from Studio Ponoc, a new Japanese animation house, founded by former members of Studio Ghibli after the company went on a temporary hiatus. The style and dedication to detail has carried over from that powerhouse animation studio, and director Hiromasa Yonebayashi has overseen the creation of a fully formed world here—one in which magic and magic users are hidden away from the sight of the regular world in a grand, castle-like school that's situated on a floating island above the clouds.

This is the sort of story that relishes in building its world. The screenplay, written by Riko Sakaguchi and Yonebayashi, is based on the 1971 children's novel The Little Broomstick by British author Mary Stewart, and the movie's story seems to exist in a unique place, with the characters appearing British but drawn in that specific style of Japanese animation, while the backdrops look as if they could be set in any place where there are fields and forests and farms and tiny villages down some dirt road. The movie isn't concerned with the specifics of the real world, because they're bland and boring in a world in which magic exists.

It takes a while for the story to arrive in the world of magic, but before then, we're given a plucky heroine who seems to know just how bland and boring the real world is. She's Mary (voice of Ruby Barnhill), a red-headed, frizzy-haired girl who has just moved into a remote farmhouse with her great-aunt Charlotte (voice of Lynda Baron). Her parents are busy with work and will be joining her sooner or later. In the meantime, she's preparing for and dreading her first day at a new school.

There's some business with a local boy named Peter (voice of Louis Ashbourne Serkis), who teases Mary for her hair, and a pair of cats, who get into mischief. The cats lead Mary to a mysterious flower growing in a glade of the local forest. From the prologue, we learn that the flower came from the magical realm at some point decades in the past. A young witch stole them from a great tree on one of the islands above the clouds, and after being attacked by some flying fish-like creatures, the witch fell to the earth, scattering the glowing seeds of the flowers in the woods.

They only bloom every several years, and Mary just happens to find herself in that part of the woods in time to see them bloom. Upon taking them home, she discovers that the petals turn to goo. The goo temporarily gives her magical abilities, and a flying broomstick brings her to an exclusive university where witches and wizards learn magic.

There's a sense of joy in seeing how Yonebayashi and his artists invent this school from the ground up. The headmistress is Madam Mumblechook (voice of Kate Winslet), who seems pleasant enough—save for the fact that a towering, watery representation of her warns that trespassers will be transformed into a beast. She provides Mary a tour of the school, which stands many stories tall, containing devices as ordinary as elevators (Mumblechook points out that electricity is, after all, a form of magic) and as fantastic as bubbles that carry students to their classrooms (In one of the classes, the filmmakers fit in a small homage/jab at a famous, British child wizard, who's tormented by a flying broomstick that he can't control).

The school is bright, colorful, and full of tiny wonders with which Yonebayashi fills the frame. It's a bustling place, structured in a style that seems simultaneously impractical and completely logical, always displaying at least a few instances of magic, and occasionally showing off some mystical creature here or there. We also meet Doctor Dee (voice of Jim Broadbent), a magician whose practices seem based on the scientific method and whose body is an amalgamation of flesh and mechanical parts.

There's almost no need for a story in this section of the movie, since the introduction to and discovery of this place is so overwhelming in its overall design and its specific details. One does, inevitably, arrive, and it has to do with the terrible, secret past of this place, the unethical experiments performed by Mumblechook and Dee, and the horrific consequences that such experiments could have on the normal world and the world of magic. If there's an allegory to this tale, it's in the dire results of unchecked scientific progress. It's a strange case to argue, considering how much time the movie spends in delighting in magic—the movie's overt parallel to science.

As the story moves into familiar territory (with a few clever twists, such as turning Peter into the lad in distress and a menagerie of ordinary animals turned into unnatural beasts), Mary and the Witch's Flower doesn't lose its sense of wonder, even as its sights become darker and more challenging. What it does lose is its sense of discovery, with its eventual focus on a well-worn plot involving Mary trying to stop the villainous magician-scientists from destroying the world. As inventive and elaborately designed as it is, this world deserves more than something so routine.

Note: The movie is available in an English dub (the version I saw) and in the original Japanese. As always, look for the original-language version first, although the dubbed product is effective enough.

Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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