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Mary and the Witch's Flower
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by Jay Seaver

"Casts a new but familiar spell."
4 stars

Though it's generally unfair to compare every cel-animated film that comes out of Japan to those of Studio Ghibli, especially if they made with kids in mind, this one invites it: Not only is the style fairly similar, but the filmmakers worked at Ghibli and built their new studio to do the same kind of work once that studio shifted to maintaining their catalog rather than producing new material. Also, I'd lay money that one character, a wise but curmudgeonly gardener, was modeled on Hayao Miyazaki. So it's not entirely unfair to watch the opening and tag it as "Kiki's Delivery Service" with a bit of "Castle in the Sky" mixed in, or flip those proportions when describing it later. What's important is that it turns out to be a worthy successor.

That opening gambit has a witch sneaking out of the building she's just burgled, chased by flying octopi as she escapes on her broom. She and her cargo eventually fall from the sky, her broom lost as the magical seeds dropped cause it to be swallowed by the woods. That broom will be found by Mary Smith (voiced by Hana Sugisaki in Japanese and Ruby Barnhill in English), a clumsy but well-meaning girl with unruly red hair who has moved to this small town ahead of her parents. The only other kid around is Peter (voices of Ryunosuke Kamiki and Louis Ashbourne Serkis), who teases her when running errands for the neighbors. Soon, a black cat has led Mary to the broom and a strange blue flower, with the broom launching like a rocket and bringing Mary to a school for magicians high above the clouds. There, Madam Mumblechook (voices of Yuki Amami and Kate Winslet) and Doctor Dee (voices of Fumiyo Kohinata and Jim Broadbent) tell her that she must be a prodigy to have found her way there - but down on earth, gardener Zebedee (voices of Ken'ichi Endo and Rasmus Hardiker) is telling Mary's Great-Aunt Charlotte (voices of Shinobu Otake and Lyna Baron) that Peter has gone missing.

I'm curious how much of Mary Stewart's novel <I>The Little Broomstick</I> director Hiromasa Yonebayashi and co-writer Riko Sakaguchi have altered in their adaptation, and how much they tried to leave as-is. At times, the movie shows a little bit of awkwardness that may be attributed to going from an English-language novel to a Japanese movie that was later subtitled in English, or maybe the filmmakers giving much more time to exploration than explanation. Wherever it comes from, though, they have an interesting tendency for what can seem like a half-twist, neither entirely sticking to the expectations that come with a kid who doesn't quite fit into the regular world discovering she may be meant for more nor completely subverting them. The filmmakers may occasionally stumble when embracing that sort of ambiguity, but it makes Mary a more interesting character and Endor College a more interesting place.

I suspect kids and parents will enjoy both Mary and the world she occupies; she's a charmingly determined girl hero whose foibles and bravery are entirely her own rather than something magically influenced, and both the character design and Hana Sugisaki's vocal performance highlight how she's a little rough around the edges, always getting dirty or having her limbs seem to get tangled and more likely to grunt than gasp. She's got the tiniest hint of a bratty streak without being snobbish. She serves as a good baseline for the rest of the cast, with Peter, Great-Aunt Charlotte, and Mr. Zebedee serving as solidly earthy while Madam Mumblechock, Doctor Dee, and their students are just peculiar enough to serve as a counter but generally well short of weird enough to be disturbing. They also wisely augment things with some expressive cats and a friendly fox.

The film is spiffy to look at, too - it's got the same traditional style, featuring kids with skinny legs and solidly-built adults, broomsticks that flex like a jet jet engine, and animals that look detailed but not photo-real. The animation that is impressively smooth, with the occasional bit of CGI assistance tending to blend in rather than jump out, and the world-building is tremendous, with the filmmakers always able to introduce new elements, even late in the game, and have them feel like they fit without stopping very long for explanations. Yonebayashi will sometimes pack the screen full enough to require later freeze-framing to get every nifty piece catalogued, but will also leave some backgrounds just sketchy enough that the audience gets the idea without distraction. The soundtrack by Takatsugu Muramatsu is a nice pairing, playful but able to make the jump to high drama when it needs to.

In time, as the filmmakers Studio Ponoc attracts new members and forms a more distinct identity, viewers may start to look at "Mary and the Witch's Flower" as the start of something new as much as the continuation of a legacy, or compare Yonebayashi more to his contemporaries like Mamoru Hosada and Makoto Shinkai than to his mentors. For right now, there's nothing wrong with being so closely associated with some of the greatest kid-friendly animated features ever made, especially with results this good.

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originally posted: 01/20/18 16:17:22
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