Mary and the Witch's Flower is the first animated feature film from Studio Ponoc (it's first film at all actually). However, that shouldn't make you wary about the film, as some of its crew hail from the legendary Studio Ghibli. One of the aforementioned crew is the film's director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who helmed The Secret World of Arrietty and When Marnie Was There at Ghibli. Mary and the Witch's Flower or Meari to Majo no Hana in Japan, is based on the 1971 children's book The Little Broomstick by British author Mary Stewart.
The film opens with a bang as we follow a young witch making an escape from a burning treetop structure. The witch was making away with some magic seeds that powerful magical forces did not want her to take. The young witch did escape though, crashing into a forest and spilling the seeds which take root and transform the forest and hides the witch's broom.
We are then introduced to young Mary Smith who just moved to the country to live with her great aunt Charlotte, with the promise of her parents joining her after they finish a job. With no working television or videogames and only her aunt and the domestic help around, Mary is bored. She is also eager to do something to help, but unfortunately is clumsy and often hurts more than helps. She does meet a boy named Peter who lives in the same area, but the two do not hit it off so well.
Mary meets Peter's cats Tib and Gib and follows them into the woods, where she discovers the mysterious and beautiful fly-by-night flowers. She takes a sprig of them back home with her. Unbeknownst to her, taking that sprig causes a strange mist to cover the woods. The next day after delivering something to Peter at her great aunt's request, she ends up going back into the woods following Tib, and gets some of the flower's sap onto her. This grants her magical ability and activates the broom that was hidden there.
The broom sweeps her and Tib up and into the clouds, eventually crashing into a "stable" at the Endor magical college. Through a little bit of deception, Mary ends up in the college as a prospective student, showing advanced magic ability because of the flowers. The college is a wondrous place and Mary is given a lot of praise and attention because of her abilities. However, the college is not as great as it seems on the surface, which Mary will discover after her lie gets exposed and her friends put in danger…
Having not read The Little Broomstick I can't comment on how good an adaption this was or if the changes made were for the better or not. Fans of Ghibli animation aren't likely to be disappointed with the quality of the movie, though if I were to nitpick, I'd say this movie resembled more of the "side" movies by that studio, and not the Miyazaki big budget ones. There were some scenes where the animation seemed lacking or rushed, but overall the quality was good. What pleased me about the film was some of its more wondrous scenes, especially at the magic school. The more recent Ghibli films were more slice-of-life or dramatic rather than fantastic/magical like a film like Spirited Away was (yes, even The Tale of Princess Kaguya which had a lot of style, but not too much magic).
I saw this film on the opening night of the 37th Fall Hawai‘i Film Festival (HIFF). It was presented in Japanese with English subtitles. I don't speak Japanese, but I thought most of the cast did a good job with the vocals, especially Hana Sugisaki who played Mary. Though only a bit part, Jiro Sato who voiced Flanagan always brought a laugh when he did appear. I do wish they fleshed out the character of Peter a bit more, he has character but would be more impactful if there was just a bit more. The subtitles were clear and were never obtrusive.
The story itself was rather simple, not surprisingly as it was aimed mostly for children. Though I would not rank it among the best, it was entertaining with a good pace and did do something I did not expect near the end (not a major surprise, just something I did not expect). Though it is aimed at children, those with very young children or whose children may be sensitive to "scary" things, might be warned that there are a couple of scenes that might prove a little stressful in that area.
If you like animation, magic, and a fun story, it wouldn't be a waste of time to see this. It's rather simple, but simple things can be good, and if you are game for that I give it my recommendation. Overall a good debut for the freshman Studio Ponoc.
Here's a non-spoilery trailer for the film: