The shadow of Studio Ghibli stalwart Hayao Miyazaki looms over Mary And The Witch’s Flower, the debut feature from the newly established Studio Ponoc – founded by leading film producer Yoshiaki Nishimura, in the wake of Ghibli’s decision to halt production following Miyazaki’s retirement back in 2014.
Adapted from Mary Stewart’s beloved novel, ‘The Little Broomstick’, the film introduces us to the titular Mary (Ruby Barnhill), a curious & independent youngster struggling to overcome the boredom of living with her Great-Aunt Charlotte (Lynda Baron) in the middle of the countryside. The discovery of a rare, magical flower growing in the woods nearby, however, sends Mary on an adventure to Endor College, a school of magic hidden within the clouds. There she meets Madam Mumblechook (Kate Winslet) and the brilliant Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent), practitioners who come to believe Mary to be a mystic prodigy. Soon, though, it becomes clear that there are terrible things happening behind the scenes in Endor, and it soon falls to Mary to set things right.
Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi (When Marnie Was There) weaves a warm and gentle fairy-tale from Stewart’s novel, which brims with beauty and wonder. An action-packed prologue summons spellbinding images of sorcery that are evocative of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, while later scenes have an enthralling visual literacy that’s reminiscent of the enchanting worlds created by Lewis Carroll and J. K. Rowling, respectively.
Yet the film comes unstuck by its inability to forge its own distinctive signature. While the narrative is slight in stature, the scope is vast, failing to conjure the same soaring levels of thematic intimacy and emotional dexterity that are symbolic of the Ghibli brand, and which the director is so clearly keen to emulate. It’s a film that doesn’t so much draw upon Ghibli’s work, as seek to duplicate it.
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