The spirit of Studio Ghibli, the Oscar-winning Japanese animation house which brought you Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, lives on in this gorgeously animated family fantasy adventure. That artistic legacy is no coincidence. In 2014, when Ghibli announced, to much global tear-shedding, that it would be closing up shop with the retirement of visionary head Hayao Miyazaki, several of its veterans formed a new studio called Ponoc (a Serbo-Croat word signifying “new day”), passionately determined to keep the Ghibli flame alive.
Mary And The Witch’s Flower is Studio Ponoc’s eagerly anticipated debut film, and it continues Ghibli’s girl-power tradition of featuring a strong female protagonist.
Mary is a clumsy but keen-to-help 12-year-old redhead with bushy pigtails. It’s the summer holidays, and Mary (voiced by The BFG’s Ruby Barnhill in the English dubbed version) has been sent to live with her great-aunt, Charlotte (Lynda Baron), in a lovingly hand-painted English countryside, before starting a new school.
While kicking her heels in the sun-dappled sticks, Mary is teased by a local boy called Peter (Louis Serkis), who leads Mary into a forest, where she discovers a patch of glowing blue flowers and a little broomstick. The flowers have magical powers and Mary finds herself spirited away to a magnificent steampunk citadel in the clouds that turns out to be Endor College of witchcraft.
Picture Hogwarts meets Howl’s Moving Castle. You can’t? That’s exactly why you have to see this film. Visually, it’s mind-blowing. Mary is instantly hailed as a prodigy by headmistress, Madam Mumblechook (Kate Winslet), who appears as a flowing fountain, and her colleague Dr Dee (Jim Broadbent), whose many-legged transport recalls the Boiler Man in Spirited Away. Yet all is not as carefree as it first appears, and through a heartfelt struggle, Mary must find courage in the face of great danger to resist the darker side of Endor.
You can easily picture a young J. K. Rowling delighting in Mary Stewart’s original 1971 bestseller, The Little Broomstick, on which this is based. Like Miyazaki, director Hiromasa Yonebashi clearly has a talent for bringing classic British children’s literature to life on the big screen. His previous two films (both made at Ghibli) included an adaptation of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, titled Arrietty, and When Marnie Was There, based on Joan G Robinson’s 1967 ghost story.
Yet for all the reverential Ghibli influences, visual and thematic, there’s a new creative sap rising in Ponoc. A thrillingly choreographed action scene set in a burning mansion, featuring incredible flying evil squid beasts, is reminiscent of Ghibli’s Ponyo and Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind, and yet has a zest, energy and direction all its own. We can’t wait to see what they dream up next .
We are showing the subtitled and the English-language versions of Mary And The Witch’s Flower in our cinemas. Please check your local Picturehouse for details.