Hana Sugisaki (voice)
Yuki Amami (voice)
Fumiyo Kohinata (voice)
MARY AND THE WITCH'S FLOWER
From Studio Ponoc, founded by ex-Studio Ghibli animator and director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, comes Mary And The Witch's Flower, the story of a little girl who discovers a mysterious flower in the woods before being whisked away by a magic broomstick to another world.
You might think that after Kiki's Delivery Service, it might have been a bit too close to home for Yonebayashi to take on a similar theme for his first fully solo effort but this new film manages to both evoke the best aspects of the aforementioned Studio Ghibli classic as a loving homage and also deliver something fresh and new. Mary is no prodigy, in fact, quite the opposite: although she's always very keen to help the people around her, she tends to clumsily make a mess of things. When she is apparently selected to become a witch by a black cat, she initially doesn't fare much better but gradually learns to accept who she is and prove that, with a little more determination, she can achieve the impossible.
The magical land that she discovers over and through the clouds owes a bit to Harry Potter but it is also reminiscent of the spirit world in Spirited Away as it is peopled by strange, occasionally cute beings and is ruled by a witch who might not be the most trustworthy but might not be all bad either.
This is a gorgeous-looking film from the get-go: its slick animation, vibrant colours and surreal character design alone make it a must-see. Furthermore, the story itself is well worth sticking around for since it only gets more and more interesting as it goes on. When Mary is shown the college campus for witches that she might get enrolled to, you expect the film to settle down into a Worst Witch type of scenario where you see Mary being revealed to be not so apt with magic and learn on the go while nearly accidentally saving the day in the end.
But some darker twists are quickly revealed and the adventure becomes increasingly challenging for our main character as she deals with potentially losing her powers prematurely and, by extension, losing a friend. The villains are pretty good in that they're not the typical one-dimensional baddies you'd expect an older Disney animated feature to conjure up and there's something refreshing about a character not necessarily embracing a cool new power they've acquired just because it's cool in the end.
Everyone has praised Mary And The Witch's Flower for its pretty visuals, and rightly so, but one can't help but feel that this is an underrated effort overall. It's a bit derivative, granted, but it's every bit as sweet and emotional, not to mention well written, as some of Studio Ghibli's best.