Mary Smith (voiced by Hana Sugisaki), a young English girl tries to make herself useful at the country estate of her Great Aunt Charlotte (Shinobu Otake) but keeps messing things up. A local boy named Peter (Ryunosuke Kamiki) teases Mary for both her clumsiness and wild red hair which she hates. One day Peter's cats Tib and Gib lead Mary to a place in the woods where she finds some mysterious glowing flowers. Zebedee (Kenichi Endo), the estate gardener, identifies them as "Fly-By-Night", flowers coveted by witches, according to legend, for their magical flower. Later when Gib disappears, Tib leads Mary back into the woods. There they find an enchanted broomstick that when freed by Mary unleashes the magic contained inside the flowers. It then flies Mary and Tib to a magical realm in the clouds that turns out to be Endor College, an academy for young witches.
When is a Studio Ghibli anime not necessarily a Studio Ghibli anime? When it is the first film from Studio Ponoc, the new production house formed by former Ghibli animators including director Hiromasa Yonebayashi. With two impressive films - Arietty (2010) and When Marnie Was There (2014) - already under his belt, Yonebayashi here delivers another polished children's fantasy in the tradition of his mentor: the great Hayao Miyazaki. Upholding the long-standing Ghibli tradition of adapting children's books by British authors, Mary and the Witch's Flower is based on 'The Little Broomstick' written by Mary Stewart. It is only the second book by Stewart adapted for the screen coming more than fifty years after Walt Disney fashioned The Moon-Spinners into a vehicle for Hayley Mills.
Obviously the concept of a school for magic users cannot help but feel reminiscent of Harry Potter. There is even a passing mention of a philosopher's stone. However Stewart's novel predates J.K. Rowling's Potter books by more than twenty years. On top of that Yonebayashi and his team of animators imbue Mary and the Witch's Flower with a distinctly different visual imagination. More colourful and eccentric than the Potter universe, the film paints a vivid magical world fusing spells and technology, where crazy robots mingle with delightful animal characters. The animation exhibits all the artistry, scope and intricacy, along with a solid grasp of character-driven storytelling, one would expect from a team with this pedigree. For seasoned Ghibli fans it is almost impossible to watch Mary and the Witch's Flower and not pick up on certain elements and imagery that evoke classic Miyazaki films. Yonebayashi fashions a familiar coming of age tale wherein an insecure young heroine has her fortitude tested in a magical world and discovers inner strength laying the groundwork for the strong woman she will become. You have got the boy sidekick who goes from teasing nuisance to stalwart ally, the secret connecting the child heroine to an old woman and the polite but menacing witch. All elements familiar from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), My Neighbour Totoro (1988), Spirited Away (2001), Howl's Moving Castle (2004), Yonebayashi's own When Marnie Was There and obviously Kiki's Delivery Service (1989).
Which is not to suggest that the film is derivative. Rather it reflects certain tried and tested tropes rather than breaking new ground as Yonebayashi did with When Marnie Was There. While Kiki's Delivery Service is a low-key, intimate character study, Mary and the Witch's Flower spins a much grander, if at the same time more conventional adventure story. Things get off to a running start and maintain a much faster pace than a Miyazaki film (and stages dynamic aerial action sequences) which is liable to sit well with western viewers. Featuring Ruby Barnhill, star of Steven Spielberg's Roald Dahl adaptation The BFG (2016), Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent and Ewan Bremner, the English dub befits an anime that seems at least in part skewed towards Japanese Anglophiles. British viewers may wish to check out the original Japanese language version if only for the novelty of watching English characters exhibit Japanese mannerisms and social etiquette. Stewart's clever plot subverts expectations as Mary discovers her seemingly nurturing fantasy world hides a dark underbelly. Story twists add an interesting anti-animal experimentation subtext along with a moral complexity that upholds yet another heartening Ghibli tradition.