The Austin Chronicle

Fantastic Fest Review: Mary and the Witch's Flower

By Richard Whittaker, September 30, 2017, 12:00pm, Picture in Picture

Where would Japanese animation be without British literary fantasy to adapt? Doing quite fine, of course, but Mary and the Witch's Flower continues that cultural intermingling.

It's often overlooked that much of Studio Ghibli's later output was re-workings of English fantasy novels. Hiromasa Yonebayashi worked in various animation room roles on all four (as an animator on Howl's Moving Castle and Tales From Earthsea, before directing The Secret World of Arietty and When Marnie Was There), and he sticks to the formula here for the first feature from the fledgling Studio Ponoc.

Based on 1971's The Little Broom by romance writer-turned-fantasy author Mary Stewart, Mary begins with a classic post-WWII literary set-up: young Mary Smith (voiced by Hana Sugisaki) has been sent to stay with her great-aunt Charlotte (Shinobu Otake) in the rolling hills of the English countryside while her parents are detained on an unspoken task. Bored and annoyed, she follows a cat into the woods, where she finds a magical flower, which in turn becomes her unlikely admission to Endor College, a school for witches filled with strange creatures and even stranger people.But purloined powers are not hers to keep, and Mary's deception may have bigger consequences than detention after Spells 101.

Mary serves as a quick reminder that JK Rowling did not invent the magical boarding school genre, a peculiarly British phenomenon with long roots. Yonebayashi keeps the novel's setting, although Fantastic Fest screened the Japanese-language version with subtitles. However, GKids will be releasing an English-language dub later in the year and, considering the setting, having Kate Winslet and Jim Broadbent provide voices seems perfectly reasonable.

It will be fascinating to see how that change affects watching a Japanese interpretation of pastoral England, as there are moments when some elements of culture or set dressing that ring a little false. It's in little details, like the design of Mary's lunch box, where the accuracy slips: yet that those issues slide aside when Mary reaches Endor, and the classic modern Japanese fantasy elements begin. Yet the overall vision of manor houses and rural idylls feels perfectly bucolic.

Of course, the comparisons with Ghibli are inevitable, and well deserved. Ponoc was founded by another veteran of master Miyazaki's empire, producer Yoshiaki Nishimura, after the studio went into mothballs in 2014, and was intended as its spiritual successor (the word Ponoc means midnight, or the beginning of a new day, in Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian).

It's a comparison to which Mary lives up. Visually, it's a direct descendant of both Howl's Moving Castle and Spirited Away, but considering how many people credited here worked in both, it's no surprise. Most importantly, it has the same kind of charm and wonder, and the same simple message that being yourself is the best thing to be.

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