The Austin Chronicle

Mary and the Witch's Flower

Rated PG, 102 min. Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Voices by Ruby Barnhill, Lynda Baron, Morwenna Banks, Ewen Bremner, Rasmus Hardiker, Teresa Gallagher, Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Feb. 16, 2018

Where would Japanese animation be without British literary fantasy to adapt? Doing quite fine, of course, but it's often overlooked that much of Studio Ghibli's later output was reworkings of English fantasy novels. Mary director Hiromasa Yonebayashi worked in various animation room roles on four (Howl's Moving Castle, Tales From Earthsea, The Secret World of Arrietty, and When Marnie Was There), and he sticks to the formula for the first feature from the fledgling Studio Ponoc.

Mary serves as a quick reminder that J.K. Rowling did not invent the magical boarding school genre, a peculiarly British phenomenon with deep roots. Based on 1971's The Little Broomstick by romance-writer-turned-fantasy-author Mary Stewart, Mary begins with a classic post-World War II literary set-up: Young Mary Smith (originally voiced by Hana Sugisaki, with Barnhill stepping in for the English-language dub) has been sent to stay with her great-aunt Charlotte (Baron) 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 an enchanted 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.

Visually, this is a charming addition to Japanese interpretation of pastoral England, with the overall vision of manor houses and rural idylls feeling perfectly bucolic. There are moments when some elements of culture or set dressing ring a little false. It's in little details, like the design of Mary's lunch box, where the accuracy slips: Yet those issues slide aside when Mary reaches Endor and the classic modern Japanese fantasy elements begin.

Of course, the comparisons with Ghibli's canon 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 and narratively, it's a direct descendant to Ghibli, but considering how many people credited here worked in both studios, 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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