Film Review: Mary and The Witch's Flower

Fans of Harry Potter—and there sure are enough of them—will love this magical broomstick ride from a gifted bunch of Studio Ghibli artists.
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At first blush, you might think that Mary and The Witch’s Flower is something of a rip-off of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, but this tale—originally titled The Little Broomstick—of a child who becomes involved with a school for witches was actually written by Brit Mary Stewart years before Rowling set pen to paper. Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi is one of a group of veteran filmmakers from Japan’s legendary Studio Ghibli who have formed the new Studio Ponoc, and this is their first feature venture, made for much less than what Ghibli productions were known to cost and already a box-office winner in Japan.

Mary (voiced by Ruby Barnhill) has just moved to her new quaint cottage home, owned by her Great-Aunt Charlotte (Lynda Baron), and wants to make a good first impression, but her clumsiness defeats her. One day a cat who changes colors before her eyes appears and, following, it, she discovers the precious Witch’s flower—a phosphorescent berry that grows only once in seven years—and a magical aerial broom, which spirits her away to Endor College of Learning for young witches.

There, villainous schoolmasters Madam Mumblechook (Kate Winslet) and Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent) greedily try to discover where Mary found the flower, even kidnapping her young friend Peter (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) and threatening to turn him into a shape-shifting monster. Using her inner strengths rather than her newly acquired magical powers, Mary must triumph over all.

Although one might wish that some of the animation were more imaginative and Mary not quite so typical anime-looking, with those preternaturally huge eyes so favored by the genre, there’s a lot to enjoy here. The rousing spirit of Ghibli is alive and well in the perky verve with which Mary’s story is told, and the film is filled with enough fanciful creatures, hair-raising chase scenes and general magic—like a creepy black hand composed of ooze, a dazzling water spectacle for Mumblechook’s grand entrance and the sparkling environs of the college itself—to hold your interest. Winslet and Broadbent are heard to be having a grand campy time, and there’s a basic intelligence and sensitivity applied to the entire enterprise that raises it above most international family fare.

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