Review – Studio Ponoc makes its presence felt with ‘Mary and the Witch’s Flower’

Poster for 2018 fantasy anime Mary and the Witch's Flower

Genre: Fantasy
Certificate: U
UK Release Date: 4th May 2018
Runtime: 103 minutes
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Writer: Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Riko Sakaguchi
Starring: Ruby Barnhill, Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent, Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Ewen Bremner, Morwenna Banks
Synopsis: A young girl bored of spending her summer months in rural England is transported to a school for magic, which is home to a chemistry teacher who has been carrying out sinister experiments.

 

 

Studio Ghibli is gone – or at least was gone until Hayao Miyazaki changed his mind. Into the void have sprung a number of new voices in anime, and one of those voices is Studio Ponoc, making its debut with Mary and the Witch’s Flower, directed by Ghibli veteran Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who made When Marnie Was There and Arrietty. The film is an adaptation of Mary Stewart’s 1971 children’s book The Little Broomstick, which provides it with an intriguing mixture. On the one hand, there’s the verdant beauty of the rural English setting while, on the other, there’s the unique visual flair of Japanese animation.

It’s that juxtaposition that provides Mary and the Witch’s Flower with its kinetic opening. The film opens with a mad, colourful action scene that feels like vintage anime fantasy, before immediately shunting the audience into the parochial monotony of Mary, spending a tedious summer in the countryside. Voiced by The BFG‘s child star Ruby Barnhill, Mary goes wandering in the woods and finds a glowing blue flower. The gardener tells her the plant is a super rare ‘fly-by-night’, which legend dictates is coveted by witches. A pair of cats owned by local boy Peter (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) lead Mary to a broomstick and she finds herself transported to Endor College, where she discovers that witches are real.

Apparently, Endor is not Hogwarts, despite the presence of Jim Broadbent as a chemistry teacher and Kate Winslet as Madame Mumblechook – a Dumbledore tribute act if ever there was one. Had this not been based on a 1970s book, JK Rowling would almost certainly be speed dialling her lawyers. The school, though, is tremendously realised and proves to be a great blast of escapism, peppered with humour – Winslet tells Barnhill that the elevators are “electric, my dear” when she assumes sorcery is at play.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower is as colourful as a Skittles explosion and every bit as joyfully hyperactive. Barnhill finds herself at the centre of all of this, with all of the effervescent innocence that made her so enjoyable alongside Mark Rylance in BFG. She’s helped by the fact Broadbent and Winslet are both firing on all cylinders, with Broadbent in particular embracing the weirdness of the character and his sinister edge. There’s also a memorable cameo from Ewen Bremner, who seems to be some sort of feline broomstick mechanic. That’s the sort of movie this is.

Everything about this movie fizzes with energy and, though it occasionally suffers from an overload of exposition, it’s constantly adventurous and inventive. As much as it works visually, it also benefits in its English version from great voice performances – even more impressive given that dubbing really can go either way. As a statement of intent from Studio Ponoc, this is a memorable and assured debut that brings together the best of West and East when it comes to filmmaking.

 

Pop or Poop?

Rating: Pop!

Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Studio Ponoc are here and they’re a bright new voice in anime, if Mary and the Witch’s Flower is anything to go by. Helped by a lovely selection of voice performances and a timeless children’s story, the film is a fun and absorbing adventure. It’s packed with rich emotion, as well as the magic and madness that the world has come to expect from the best of Japanese animated cinema.

 

Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.

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