Mary and the Witch’s Flower review: A magical debut flight for Studio Ponoc

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It’s easy to get excited about an animated feature when you hear its coming from some of the creators behind Studio Ghibli’s greatest works, and in almost all respects, Mary and the Witch’s Flower (Mary to Majo no Hana) meets expectations.

Studio Ponoc’s first animated feature beautifully follows the summer escapades of Mary, a pigtailed girl wrestling with inadequacy, boredom, newfound magical power, and a desire to save her friends. Set in a small European town nestled amongst thick misty woods, Mary finds a rare blossom and a magical broom that whisks her to a magic college in the sky. Watching her uncover the school’s darker secrets is a joy sprinkled with much of the special Ghibli formula.

Every character’s distinct silhouette comes to life with fluid animation that’s at once wholly believable and enchantingly fantastical. Within the first few moments of the movie, a young redheaded witch leaps off the slippery cliffs of a burning castle onto her broom, weaving her way through midnight clouds in hopes of shaking her pursuers: bulbous fish-like familiars with wings. Even though I had an idea of what I was in for, the abrupt flexing of Studio Ponoc’s animation muscle made me gape. The fish’s fins wobble with turbulence, their “wings” slowly flap with a steady rhythm that inspires confidence in their aviation capabilities, and the slip stream from the witch’s broom splits and darts across their skin as they duck in and out of clouds. It’s impressive work.

I expected to be awed, yet the abrupt flexing of Studio Ponoc’s animation muscle still made me gape

This smooth animation reaches the faces of each character too, be they unconventional beast, exaggerated magic-wielding human, or one of the myriad animals scattered throughout several scenes. The personification brimming from Tib, a black-haired, green-eyed cat that pulls Mary through her tale, is of particular note. Even the briefest cuts revealing his indignant pout, or abject terror at a magical force Mary can’t see was enough to make the audience in my theatre coo or even outright guffaw.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower’s ability to telegraph these charming beats is a huge part of its appeal. From moment to moment, subtle visual cues prime the action approaching in subsequent cuts. For example, a surprise rhino running through a crowd of smaller animals in the background precedes its horn bursting through a wooden door, and the slopes of thick tree roots guide the eye to exactly where Mary might jump — or slip.

An incredibly earnest protagonist with an endearing degree of fragile vanity, Mary is also a klutz. Not quite like the determined, redheaded broom rider we see in the opening sequence, Mary’s unintentional clowning beautifully captures her desire for independence while also revealing her spatial naivety as she stumbles over herself or struggles to park her flying broomstick.

Mary is an incredibly earnest protagonist with an endearing degree of fragile vanity

Her young character first manifests in quiet moments of personal laziness, eager acceptance of family errands, and a tepid dismissal of a boy who teases her. Every scene shows us the shape of a likeable child with room to grow, and even though some minor plot holes in the third act lie beneath the surface, seeing Mary strengthen and bloom throughout the movie — much like the titular, magic-bestowing witch’s flower — is rewarding enough to ignore a couple loose ends.

The movie also boasts a familiar and sweeping orchestral soundtrack. It features poignant leitmotifs for each major character introduction (the hobbling bassoon as the magic school’s headmistress Madame Mumblechook first stumbles out of her office couldn’t be better,) but it also eases into surprising moments of extended quiet which leave only the sound of Mary’s forest footsteps in thick moss, or the creaks of magical contraptions to colour the scene.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower marks an impressive, family-friendly debut from Studio Ponoc. If its next work bears even half the heart of its first, it’ll still be a great pleasure. There’s always room in life for more feel-good tales like this.

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