Mary and the Witch's Flower is an unabashedly uncomplicated fable about a young heroine's discovery of her own magical powers and an evil plot to destroy the world that she must thwart. The stakes are almost entirely insular, with each idea introduced to take us to the next plot point. The characters are types, well-worn in the fantasy genre, and the film's tone alternates between reverent and mysterious. It would seem that such familiarity might hurt the film, an animated one hailing from Studio Ponoc (which rose from the ashes of Studio Ghibli after it was shut down) and adapted from a children's novel by Mary Stewart, but in fact, these are strengths.
That is because, while one could use the word "familiar" to describe it, screenwriters Hiromasa Yonebayashi (who also directed) and Riko Sakaguchi are so reverent to the fantasy yarns of the past that a better word to describe the experience would be "reliable." There is comfort in the expected, which here is occasionally interrupted by the strange and the wondrous, and the storytellers in this case relish and cherish that sense of comfort. The animation, as one might expect from the animators who peopled the halls of Studio Ghibli, is stunning, all of it (to this eye) drawn by hand, the complexities of the backgrounds and fantastical creatures boundless in their invention.
At the front of the story is Mary (voice of Ruby Barnhill), an unassuming girl with hair as red as Anne's who resides with her great-aunt Charlotte (voice of Lynda Baron) while her busybody parents are off doing their work (That we are never told what that work is certainly underlines it not mattering much to their daughter what they're doing). Mary spends her days slacking off from having to unpack her belongings, doing menial favors for Charlotte as a way to stave off boredom, and being annoyed by the snobbish Peter (voice of Louis Ashbourne Serkis), who seems always to crop up at inopportune moments.
That is, until she wanders off in search of a black cat that itself wandered into the ominous woods nearby. In the wood, she finds a few flowers. There is a strange glow to these flowers, which she learns are called "witch's flowers." Beside them is an old broomstick with odd, runic markings on its side, and at the flower's touch, it whisks Mary off to a strange school of witchcraft and wizardry (no, not that one, of course, although one student here, mocked by his uncontrollable broomstick, does resemble the other one's most famous pupil). She meets the headmistress, Madame Mumblechook (voice of Kate Winslet), whose pleasantries harbor a dark side when an important rule is broken, and chemistry professor Doctor Dee (voice of Jim Broadbent), who pretty much always speaks in scientific jargon and half of whose body seems to be a motorized unicycle.
Of course, the school itself has a dark side, too, as Dee and Mumblechook's intentions involving the witch's flowers become clearer and their twisted science experiments are let loose. The film's broad narrative has two sides: a cautionary allegory about traveling beyond the extent of safe scientific experimentation and a tale of female empowerment in the mere fact of Mary being the heroine. This is nothing new, but Mary and the Witch's Flower understands that and reconciles the familiar by embracing the spectacular.
Featuring the voices of Ruby Barnhill (Mary), Kate Winslet (Madame Mumblechook), Jim Broadbent (Doctor Dee), Louis Ashbourne Serkis (Peter), Lynda Baron (Great-Aunt Charlotte), and Ewen Bremner (Flanagan).
Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi and written by Yonebayashi and Riko Sakaguchi, based on the novel The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart.
Rated PG (action, thematic elements).
Released in select cities on January 19, 2018.