I have a confession to make. I have only seen one – count ’em! – Studio Ghibli film. It’s the one everyone has seen (no, not that one with the friendly cat Moomin, the other one with the pigs). And I liked it! Well, it scared me a little but that’s not necessarily a bad thing and I really enjoyed it. I would absolutely watch more. I will. I just… haven’t yet.
I begin with this so that you can understand I don’t carry any reverential baggage into a film like Mary and the Witch’s Flower, made by Studio Ponoc – which is largely people from Ghibli, making films, as I understand it, in the spirit of Ghibli. To put it another way, I watched it as though walking into a superhero sequel with no context, no trailers and a vague awareness that Stan Lee exists.
In that vein, I know that there’s something of a tradition of fusing a Japanese take on animation and storytelling with classic British stories. In this case, Mary is an adaptation of The Little Broomstick, helmed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (When Marnie Was There, Arietty). It tells the story of bright, curious Mary (in the UK dub, Ruby Barnhill of The BFG), who arrives at her aunt’s rural house ahead of her parents and is a trapped, bored ball of energy as she explores the countryside waiting for excitement to happen. In her wanderings she comes across a pair of intriguing cats and their owner, Peter, who teases her about her wild, red hair. She also encounters the beautiful fly-by-night plant, and an old broom – and it’s when the two collide and the berries from the plant burst on the broom’s handle that she is literally thrown into an extraordinary other world. One which might just have a little more danger beneath the surface than she realises…
Mary is a gorgeously hand-drawn charmer, which somehow marries an overall gentleness with enough unexpected twists and turns to keep the attention of viewers of all ages. If adults get a little itchy at Mary’s rather flat character development and the slightly stilted screenplay, they will still be cheering on the inside at having a bossy, headstrong girl in the main role. And indeed, this is a very female film. When Mary is whisked away to a magical school – to my eyes, what Albus Dumbledore might have created with Willy Wonka – it is formidable headmistress Madam Mumblechook (Kate Winslet) who stamps her presence in every corner and beguiles the young, accidental witch. And when Mumblechook’s bizarre and disturbing secret is revealed, the power to either save the day or allow certain destruction is held in both their hands – and it’s down to the strength of their characters to decide which will win out. In the meantime, Mary’s Great Aunt Charlotte provides a much-needed north star for the troubled child.
Despite touching on themes of loneliness, isolation and, er, animal and human experimentation, the pace, tone and style of Mary is such that children of virtually any age could and would be absorbed by it. Muramatsu Takatsugu (When Marnie Was There) provides a beautiful, stirring score, which harmonises with the striking visuals to give what could be a very simple story depth.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower is now on general release in the UK.
Disclosure: My thanks to DDR PR for the opportunity to see the film before release. All opinions are my own.