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MARY AND THE WITCH’S FLOWER is a Magical Visual Treat (Review)

MARY AND THE WITCH’S FLOWER is a Magical Visual Treat (Review)

The general rule of thumb with Studio Ghibli movies was: if it wasn’t directed by either of the founders, Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata, then it was probably good but not great. The one exception to that rule was the work of Hiromasa Yonebayashi, whose two Ghibli films (The Secret World of Arrietty and When Marnie Was There) employed exactly the right tone and style the studio was known for. He is also the only director other than the founders to get an Oscar nomination. So when it was announced that Yonebayashi was leaving Ghibli for his own studio, Studio Ponoc, there was great anticipation for what he’d bring to life. And his first film, Mary and The Witch’s Flower, certainly cements the filmmaker’s visual prowess.

At a time when traditional, 2D animated features seem to be going the way of the dodo, it’s unbelievably refreshing to see a new film from a new studio working in the form. Mary and The Witch’s Flower has elements that will remind delighted fans of a number of different eras in anime. If anything, the movie might even be a little too traditional in its approach, both in story and in design. But you can’t really have too much of a good thing, can you?

The film is based on the book The Little Broomstick by English author Mary Stewart; it follows a little girl (also named Mary) living in the home of her great-aunt, waiting for the school year to begin. Mary is bored because everyone around is an old person, except for Peter, the neighbor boy who delivers papers and who irritates Mary almost immediately. She does, however, like Peter’s two cats, Tib and Gib, and follows them one afternoon deep into the woods where she finds a strange blue flower, which she promptly picks and takes home.

This, however, is no ordinary flower. After finding a magic broomstick, Mary is whisked off to a distant, floating academy for witches and warlocks where she, somehow, exhibits a great deal of magical aptitude, impressing the school’s headmistress and its head of scientific magic. But once the jig is up and the flower is discovered, the school becomes a much more sinister place.

First and foremost, this movie is a treat to watch. The colors and textures are incredibly sumptuous with a fantastical palate unlike what we get in most animated films. Yonebayashi does a masterful job of making the magic world look as different from the real world as possible. As Mary finds herself further into the story, she learns of the mixture of magic and science that Madame Mumblechook and Doctor Dee utilize, and we get to see strange robots, colorful beasts, and even a terrifying mass of magical energy that looks like something straight out of post-Akira anime of the 1980s. The film’s action has a sense of movement and speed that few films of the kind can pull off effectively.

If there are any drawbacks to the film, they’re down to the story not really living up to the level of the visuals. It’s a perfectly enjoyable fantasy adventure film, but there’s not much in the plot we haven’t seen already. Aside from Mary, with whom we spend almost the entire runtime, there’s not a ton of character development, though there are plenty of nice moments for just about everyone. Unfortunately, since we live in a world that had seven Harry Potter books and eight films, Mary‘s plot feels like things we’ve seen already a million times, even if the source material predates Rowling by a couple of decades.

These matters aside, I’d still highly recommend Mary and The Witch’s Flower. Yonebayashi has crafted a stunning movie with genuine heart and humor, and one of the grumpiest cartoon cats you’ve ever seen. If you’re a big fan of Hayao Miyazaki, you’ll likely see a lot you’ll recognize here, but all of it is welcome and will certainly fill the void left since Studio Ghibli’s last movie. While I would have liked to see Yonebayashi and Studio Ponoc make more of an individual stamp rather than feel like a lost Ghibli movie, the end result is something that full of charm and life and, indeed, a little bit of magic.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 wiccan floral burritos

 

Images: GKIDS/Studio Ponoc

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. He’s the writer of Studio Ghibli retrospectives Miyazaki Masterclass, Takahata Textbook, and Ghibli Bits. Follow him on Twitter!

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