‘Mary and the Witch’s Flower’ – The Rise Of Broom Girl (Movie Review)

For a story mainly focused on a young girl, her broom, and a cat, there is a lot of action and excitement to be found in Mary and the Witch’s Flower. Here’s an animated film that opens with explosions and a mid-air chase scene involving a witch on a broom and flying fish-like creatures. It also happens to be a delightful coming-of-age story about perseverance and understanding who you want to be. Bringing these two ideas together, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a colorful blast of adventure, magic, and the sort of thrilling animation one would hope to see from an animation studio that isn’t afraid to embrace the abstract.

Adapted from The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, the movie tells the story of a girl named Mary (voiced by The BFG’s Ruby Barnhill), who discovers a mysterious flower that grants her magical powers. This discovery leads to another – a magic school that exists high above the clouds. Mary ventures there by way of a stubborn flying broom, where she meets the headmistress Madam Mumblechook (Kate Winslet) and Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent). Thanks to Mary’s curiosity, revelations are made, and the chance to be a powerful witch is soon countered by the cost of the obsession with such abilities.

It is great to see an animation studio come along and capture the same sense of joy and wonder that Studio Ghibli was able to accomplish so frequently. Studio Ponoc was founded by Yoshiaki Nishimura, along with several animators from Studio Ghibli and one can see familiar visuals and ideas coming to life and providing hope that we’ll see more films calling back to the many classics produced by Ghibli and director Hayao Miyazaki.

Perhaps that is an aspect that holds Mary and the Witch’s Flower back from feeling like a film headed in a new direction for this team of animators. However, director Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret World of Arrietty, When Marnie Was There) indeed does well to make a full meal out of the visuals and concepts we see here. Thanks to a stripped-down approach to storytelling, there is relentlessness to the film where Mary is continuously discovering something, interacting with someone interesting, or involved in some magical action. The results, as far as where this journey takes Mary, may underwhelm a bit, but getting to that point is a lot of fun.

While this is very much Mary’s story, the supporting characters do well to fill out this world. Most notably, Mumblechook and Doctor Dee are given some curious motivations that amount to nefarious intentions, but with a purpose. Much like many Ghibli films, the villains tend to be more complicated than evil. The way this story incorporates them and where it takes them works to preserve the level of innocence Mary and the Witch’s Flower is going for. Even with its explosive battles, this really is a movie that can work for all ages.

There’s also the animation, which is always worth highlighting. In an age where CG-animation has become the norm for mainstream animated films, it was refreshing to see Studio Ghibli (among others) release new films full of hand-drawn ambition. Studio Ponoc stays true to that aesthetic with a visual language that is colorful, fluid and so wonderful to watch. Getting a thrill from seeing a little girl flying on a broom must mean something, and that’s not the only neat visual to see presented in this medium.

The film is also quite funny. While the voice work is suitable enough (the American dubbing is good enough here, as Winslet and Broadbent do the most to make real characters and not just stand-in as big names that can be promoted), there is a universality to the expressions seen on both the human characters and the animals that provides plenty of humor. It works to break some tension, as well as highlight why a film about magic should be amusing.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower is excellent animated entertainment. It tells a fun story and allows for a strong, young female character to guide herself towards what is right. There’s also the sense of discovery that comes with films like this. Being whisked away to a magical world may be a typical idea for a fantasy film, but it helps when the movie does the work to make that world feel special in some way. I look forward to seeing what other unique worlds Studio Ponoc plans to create.

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