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Fantastic Fest Review: "Mary and the Witch's Flower" (2017)

Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.

The official Japanese theatrical poster for "Mary and the Witch's Flower."

The official Japanese theatrical poster for "Mary and the Witch's Flower."

Mary and the Witch’s Flower

Hiromasa Yonebayashi, director of The Secret World of Arrietty and When Marnie Was There, left Studio Ghibli to start his own animation studio known as Studio Ponoc. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is Studio Ponoc’s first feature film.

Quick Synopsis

Based on a 1971 children’s novel titled The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is about an ordinary red-haired girl named Mary. She lives with her Great-Aunt Charlotte and desperately wants to help and be useful, but clumsily makes things worse without trying to. Feeling like she’s useless, Mary follows two cats into the forest and finds a glowing blue flower known as a “fly-by-night” or The Witch’s Flower and suddenly Mary’s life becomes a lot more exciting.

Studio Ponoc's Debut

With an English voice cast that includes Kate Winslet and Jim Broadbent, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a gloriously impressive and gorgeously animated debut for Studio Ponoc. The film is going to remind you of a ton of films included in the Studio Ghibli back catalog and a few influences found outside the anime genre. Mary and the Witch’s Flower plunges itself down the rabbit hole much like Spirited Away or Alice in Wonderland while Endor College reminds you of Hogwarts and the spells involved within the witchcraft of the film would fit quite well in any Harry Potter film.

Familiar Yet Fresh

While Yonebayashi’s directorial debut fuses several well-known elements from similar animated films, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is also its own experience. The animation is absolutely stunning and seems to frolic happily in the fantasy genre residing somewhere between fanciful and whimsical.

Character Exploration

You also adore most of the characters. Mary’s unending search of finding a use for herself explores adolescence in a way that will have everyone flashing back to their own childhood. A cool aspect of the film is that Mary isn’t the damsel in the distress and is actually very much the hero of the story as it’s up to her to save a young boy around her age named Peter. The two cats featured in the film, Tib and Gib, show more personality than anyone else in the film despite not having any dialogue whatsoever. A personal favorite is Flanagan who looks like a bearded fox with a Dick Dastardly curly mustache and seems to be dressed as a gnome. Flanagan serves as a guide to Mary when she arrives at Endor College and has a particular knack for reminding everyone how awful they are at tending to their broomsticks.

A scene from Hiromasa Yonebayashi's directorial debut "Mary and the Witch's Flower."

A scene from Hiromasa Yonebayashi's directorial debut "Mary and the Witch's Flower."

A Mix of Fact and Fantasy

The unusual aspect of Mary and the Witch’s Flower is that it not only acknowledges science and magic coexisting with one another, but they’re actually integrated together to create spells and technology only the merging of the two could generate.

Doctor Dee’s inventions are uniquely intricate and function differently than you’re probably expecting. Doctor Dee could easily pass for a brother or cousin of Dr. Finkelstein from The Nightmare Before Christmas. Madam Mumblechook is the head of the school as her ideas and costume choices seem to be directly lifted from the mind of Dr. Seuss, with vibrant colors and characteristically defining loops. Their hunt for the Witch’s Flower is inspired by–and even directly referenced to–The Philosopher’s Stone, which has been featured in the Harry Potter franchise and was a key component of the Fullmetal Alchemist anime franchise.

Magical and Memorable

With a playful score to match its carefree atmosphere, Mary and the Witch’s Flower submerges itself in Studio Ghibli levels of imagination, beautiful color, likeable characters, and dazzlingly fluid animation for a final product that is creatively captivating to audiences of all ages.

© 2017 Chris Sawin