'Mary and the Witch’s Flower' ('Meari to majo no hana'): Film Review | AFI Fest 2017

Delightfully imaginative.

Kate Winslet and Jim Broadbent figure prominently in the voice cast of Oscar nominee Yonebayashi Hiromasa’s new animated feature.

Oscar-nominated animator and director Yonebayashi Hiromasa (When Marnie Was There) returns with a more lighthearted anime feature in Mary and the Witch’s Flower, a stirring adventure most suitable for tweens and teens. Operating independently of Studio Ghibli for the first time, Yonebayashi preserves many of the best characteristics of animation master Hayao Miyazaki’s venerable production company, which he developed directing his first two films, The Secret World of Arrietty and Marnie.

Once again exploring the imagination of a solitary girl seeking connection, the setting this time is the English countryside, where young Mary (Ruby Barnhill) has just arrived to live with her great-aunt Charlotte (Lynda Baron) during the last week of summer vacation before starting at a new school. Feeling bored beyond belief without any playmates, she tries approaching Peter (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), a local boy about her own age. Initially he considers Mary, with her awkward manner and mop of frizzy red hair, a bit odd before grudgingly showing her around the local village and surrounding countryside.

Mary continues wandering the nearby fields and forest on her own, although she’s warned not to venture too deeply into the woods. Encountering Peter’s cats one day, she follows them far into the forest where they reveal a mysterious, glowing blue flower and an old broomstick stuck in the underbrush. Picking the lovely flower and retrieving the broom, she discovers that the bloom’s nectar activates its power and the broomstick suddenly flies off with her aboard.

Soaring through the clouds, it takes her to a city in the sky, where Madam Mumblechook (Kate Winslet) presides over the Endor College of Magic. Along with the mysterious Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent), Mumblechook is so impressed with Mary’s magical skills she’s ready to enroll her on the spot. Mary knows, however, that her powers are temporary and as soon as the effect of the nectar wears off, Mumblechook ascertains that Mary knows where to find the magical plant known as the “witch’s flower” that’s she’s been coveting for years. Suddenly turning hostile, she kidnaps Peter to force Mary to turn over the rare plant in exchange for the safe return of the young lad.

Yonebayashi’s latest represents a departure from the more mature, forebodingly mysterious tone of Marnie, perhaps more closely resembling the light comedy of Miyazaki’s own young-witch tale Kiki’s Delivery Service. Thematically, however, Mary also represents his interpretation of the “magical girl” anime subgenre that Miyazaki explored so effectively in 2002’s Spirited Away. In this case, as Mary comes into her own power through her confrontation with Mumblechook, she discovers the self-confidence and independence she will need to rely on in adulthood.

Despite the Harry Potter-type setup that lands Mary at Mumblechook’s college of magic, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is actually based on the 1971 children’s book The Little Broomstick, written by Mary Stewart, a British novelist specializing in the romantic mystery genre. Stewart appears to have been intent on exploring the inner resilience of her young heroine and Yonebayashi’s adaptation (co-written with Sakaguchi Riko) remains faithful to that vision, carefully integrating it with well-established anime and manga themes of female empowerment.

Twelve-year-old British actress Ruby Barnhill does most of the heavy lifting as Mary, excelling at expressing the girl’s growing determination and focus on protecting her friends and family, even injecting some typically Japanese vocal mannerisms into her dialogue. Winslet gives Mumblechook a fussy, superior characterization that seems spot-on, though her co-star Broadbent goes way over the top with Doctor Dee’s manic scientific zeal.

Although unencumbered by Studio Ghibli’s almost fanatical devotion to maintaining a consistent visual style, Yonebayashi hews closely to the company’s trademark naturalism, enlivened by more fanciful elements, such as the steampunk city where the college of magic is located. Otherwise, the action takes place in a vaguely rural English country-village setting that’s both slightly generic as well as evocative of a fondly remembered bygone period.

Production companies: Nippon TV Movies, Amuse, Studio Ponoc, Toho Company
Distributors: GKIDS, Toho Company, Altitude Film Entertainment
Cast: Ruby Barnhill, Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent, Lynda Baron, Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Ewen Bremner
Director: Yonebayashi Hiromasa
Sakaguchi Riko, Yonebayashi Hiromasa
Nishimura Yoshiaki
Executive producer:
Kadoya Daisuke
Director of photography: Okui Atsushi
Kojima Toshihiko
Muramatsu Takatsugu
Venue: AFI Fest (also in Hawaii International Film Festival)

103 minutes