Studio Ghibli had long established itself as the pinnacle of Japanese animation starting in the 1980's, but recently the studio went into hiatus, leaving most of its younger employees at a dead-end. Not to be discouraged, some of these employees decided to start a new facility of their own. Now christened as "Studio Ponoc", this team of former Ghibli animators, led by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY and WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE) begin their career with MARY AND THE WITCH'S FLOWER, based on a children's book by the late Mary Stewart. The end result could very well be described as basically a "Greatest Hits" of Ghibli as opposed to something that would establish a new identity for the studio, but considering the alternative, which would be a complete extinction of a beautiful form of art, for once, this isn't a flaw.
Probably the best way to describe this feature is that it's a sort of KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE meets HARRY POTTER, with a dash of SPIRITED AWAY, and occasionally PRINCESS MONONOKE, HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE, as well as CASTLE IN THE SKY for good measure. While MARY AND THE WITCH'S FLOWER doesn't quite live up to the standards of those titles, it is nonetheless a pleasant enough venture. It's also refreshing to see an animated feature targeted at kids and adults which goes all-out on being ambitious. In fact, the film's action-packed opening scene, in which we see a mysterious girl flee from a burning laboratory on a broomstick while chased by dolphin-shaped watery-like creatures, provides a great start.
After this thrilling sequence, we meet Mary (voiced in the English version by Ruby Barnhill), a bored little girl who has just moved to the countryside to stay with her aunt. She's friendless, depressed, and even clumsy. The only other person her own age in the town she has recently moved into, a boy named Peter, also rubs her the wrong way: he jokes about her red hair, which for some reason she is sensitive about. While pursuing a runaway cat into the woods beyond her house, Mary discovers both a little broomstick and a glowing flower. Before you know it, she is suddenly transported to Endor College (no, it's not a reference to STAR WARS), an elaborate fortress of a university which doubles as a school for witches. She is "welcomed" by the school's domineering headmistress Madam Mumblechook (Kate Winslet) and scientist Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent). But things get ugly when she takes a spellbook that doesn't belong to her and accidentally puts Peter's life in danger. The last act of the movie involves Mary trying to correct her mistake, building to an edge of your seat climax with just enough pyrotechnics and thrills to please any fan of such suspenseful finales.
It's evident that director Yonebayashi is paying homage to his former master with every scene in his film. More often than not, there are visual references that one will make to classic Ghibli films along with visual touches of its own. Endor College is located on a tall mesa stretching above the clouds, bizarre assortments of chimera creatures abound in cages, and there are also the sort of rubbery, shape-shifting, ooze-like creatures that can be found from HOWL. At one point our heroine crash-lands in the forest, with her broomstick broken in half. And the entire climax involves scaling a massive tree which houses scientific technology. The animation is also as richly detailed and colorful as anything from Studio Ghibli, with the character designs each containing Miyazaki's signature style, from the cherub-like faces of the protagonists to the grotesquely proportioned "caricature" creatures.
Musically, too, MARY AND THE WITCH'S FLOWER excels. Although Joe Hisaishi's musical services are missed, Takatsugu Muramatsu supplies a beautiful orchestral soundtrack with occasional Hammer-dulcimer strummed interludes for good measure. There are times when the director does allow the music to take a back seat and let occasional still shots filled with environmental sounds do the talking instead of spoon-feeding us.
Perhaps the only issue with this otherwise enjoyable feature is that it doesn't quite achieve the same heights of Ghibli's classic films. It might be due to Yonebayashi trying to do a bit too much within 104 minutes or so, but there are a few plot points that feel a bit unresolved. I was unclear about Mary's issue regarding her hair, for instance, especially since the film decides to discard it in the second half. Her relationship with Peter also could have used a bit more fleshing out as well -- her sudden shift from annoyance to wanting to rescue him feels abrupt, even for a kid her age. The ending itself, while thrilling, also seems a bit rushed as well. Moreover, Mumblechook and Doctor Dee aren't all that scary for being antagonists, and despite Yonebayashi's claims that they are "misunderstood", all we're permitted to see in the film is both characters mostly engaging in despicable acts.
Probably the most interesting character in the movie is the one that doesn't utter a word, and that is Tib, a black cat who very much resembles Jiji from KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE. He pretty much acts like any ordinary cat would. He meows, prances, acts independently, and mostly communicates with facial expressions. For good measure, Tib even has a girlfriend. Not that the other characters are unlikable by comparison, but these two animals, for some reason, really stand out.
Following in the tradition of the Ghibli movies, this movie also employs some well-known actors and actresses to provide the voices for the dub -- only this time, the dub is recorded at England's Tambourine Studios, resulting with a mostly British-accented cast. Considering that this is based on a British children's book, this provides a nice change of pace, and is arguably all the more fitting for this film perhaps because of that. (None of this is a slight against any of the Disney-produced dubs for the Ghibli library -- they're still excellent, warts and all.) Oddly, the only performance that took a while to grow on me was that of Barnhill as Mary (recently seen as Sophie in Steven Spielberg's THE BFG). Her voice is a bit grating at first, with the occasional moment of tentativeness, but she gradually steps it up as the film goes on and by the end her Mary grew on me. Broadbent and Winslet are fine in their roles as Mumblechook and Dee, by contrast, while Louis Ashbourne Serkis (son of Andy Serkis from LORD OF THE RINGS fame) speaks appropriately for the role of Peter. Strangely, my favorite performance of the dub might be that of Ewen Bremner as as Flannagan, a pompous fox-like character who chastises Mary for how she handles her broomstick. The Scottish accent is a great fit, and he brings a lot of character. There are a few moments where the lip sync is less than perfect, but not distracting enough to take away from the film. I can't speak for the Japanese version, as I haven't seen it.
In the end it doesn't matter which version you watch. MARY AND THE WITCH'S FLOWER, inferior though it may be to Ghibli, is nonetheless lovely and a great way to spend two hours. Although it does little to set Ponoc apart from the studio it takes inspiration from, there's plenty to enjoy. That it comes at a time when hand-drawn animated features like these are scarce (at least in America) is a blessing as well.