Mary and the Witch’s Flower opens with an explosive getaway from a magical heist, scattering glowing blue seeds that alter the very makeup of the forest they land in. A flash forward, and we see the verdant, beautiful land that was affected, nature’s glory in full view, panned over until we reach a young girl looking out at the world with wide eyes. ‘I am so bored’ she sighs, a brilliant undercutting of all the visual splendour we’ve just witnessed and a funny reminder that the first feature from Studio Ponoc is fully committed to presenting a child’s-eye view of the world, where fun above all else is paramount.
Ponoc are the successors to the universally beloved Studio Ghibli, and they don’t stray too far from the classic formula for their debut. This is still a magic-infused adventure story where a young girl learns her inner strength and cunning to save herself from some perilous situations. This time around, the girl is Mary (Ruby Barnhill), who is spending the last week of her summer holiday at her great aunt’s house before starting a new school. Following a pair of delightfully fluffy cats into the woods on a direction-less day, she discovers some magic berries and a broomstick, and it’s not long before she’s flying through the clouds.
Eventually, she ends up at a wizarding school in the sky, Endor College, overseen by the immediately suspicious and sinister Madam Mumblechook (Kate Winslet) and Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent). Based on Mary Stewart’s book The Little Broomstick, a quaint British story about a magic school might immediately bring Hogwarts to mind, but under the careful eyes of the Ponoc designers and animators, Endor College is quite different. Steampunk towers rise out of fountains and advanced students wear disquieting, Rorschach Test-esque masks.
With very cartoony characters backed by more painterly and gentle environments, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is, expectedly, gorgeous. Everything bursts with life, from Mary’s cheeky neighbour Peter to her flying broom, which is part horse and part disobedient pogo stick, a bizarrely endearing combination. The villains and their cronies recall the best in Ghibli’s understatedly menacing enemy design, with small details in their costumes or mannerisms setting off alarm bells and freaky magical powers like turning their bodies into piles of flying fish are striking and surreal. A twinkling, mysterious score helps make the action set-pieces really sing and adds atmosphere to this jolly but dangerous world.
More so than most classic Ghibli, Ponoc’s film is unashamedly a children-first affair. That’s absolutely fine, of course, and for the most part, the sincerity of the message and likability of Mary (who is useless at everything boring like gardening or tidying her room, but brilliant at heroism) will keep adults engaged. Kindness and tenacity are Mary’s main superpowers, even as she wields advanced spells, and a sequence in which she frees hundreds of caged animals is both thrilling and immensely heartwarming. The plot is always kept admirably simple, with no distracting side-stories, but sometimes dialogue or character is phoned in in the service of keeping everything running briskly.
It’s hardly going to affect any kid’s enjoyment of the film, but it’s a flaw that stops Mary and the Witch’s Flower from matching upper tier Ghibli in terms of emotional impact. Barnhill, who proved her adventurer chops in Spielberg’s BFG, makes for a very charming lead and Jim Broadbent is entertainingly hammy as a mad wizard scientist. Winslet, though, feels a little wasted in an antagonistic role that isn’t quite scary or complex enough, a small quibble in a very fun family adventure.