Mary and the Witch’s Flower has more imagination in its first sixty seconds than some entire films manage across their runtime. As you’d expect from a team that includes ex-Ghibli employees, the first feature from Studio Ponoc is rendered in top-notch animation and centres around an instantly lovable young protagonist, Mary (Sugasaki).
Mary is perhaps aimed more squarely at children than a lot of Ghibli’s work. This is no barrier to adult enjoyment, though the plot can be clunky and rather predictable. The story’s emotional grounding, however, is faultless, even if the music that supports these beats can be a bit overwrought.
Characterisation is a major strength. Yonebayashi excels particularly with animal characters, making use of a traditional creature from Japanese folklore to develop the film’s funniest character, and presenting unbelievably adorable cats and dogs. But the animals are not just mere fodder for the animators. Mary’s story incorporates a strongly felt animal rights message that culminates in one of the most impressively mounted scenes – a joyous multi-species stampede.
Not that the human characters suffer by comparison. Mary is sympathetic, yet also cheeky and a little hapless, and her relationship with her Great Aunt Charlotte is touchingly developed. Even the antagonists are never simply bad guys, but complex and conflicted figures.
It’s in terms of structure and pace that Mary stumbles. It takes its time to introduce the world, rightly revelling in the lovely English landscapes and establishing character dynamics, but then has to march quickly through a lot of exposition to kick-start the plot. This stop-start feel continues throughout.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower offers riotous fun and an affecting story, demonstrating that Studio Ponoc is bursting with creative potential. With a little more consideration given to narrative shape, they can be up there with the best of Ghibli.
CAST: Hana Sugisaki, Ryûnosuke Kamiki, Yûki Amami, Fumiyo Kohinata
DIRECTOR: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
WRITERS: Mary Stewart (novel), Riko Sakaguchi (screenplay), Hiromasa Yonebayashi (screenplay)
SYNOPSIS: A strange flower grants a girl magic powers.