Making a leap from mild to full-blown fantasy, director and former Studio Ghibli visionary Hiromasa Yonebayashi follows up his Oscar-nominated film When Marnie Was There (2014) with Mary and the Witch’s Flower, an adaptation of Mary Stewart‘s 1971 book for children, The Little Broomstick. As the title suggests, it’s a full-blown magical adventure, the sort which a master animator could easily breathe life into.
To some extent, Yonebayashi succeeds – the film is a visual triumph, full of imaginative and eye-catching artistry, bought to life through fluid animation that demands to be seen. The action sequences are wonderfully realized, whilst the character and creature designs are inventive and colorful. The animation in particular is superb! There are no corners cut – the breadth of depth and life the animators bring to every character movement and reaction is wholly unique and inspired.
Unfortunately, despite the technical achievements, it’s the story and characters that let down proceedings. There can be no ignoring the fact that character development is near to none existent here. No deep-rooted emotional anchor or challenge to overcome beyond the basic demands of the magical macguffin plot. Mary and her friend Peter merely go through the motions, constantly running away and being captured (or even recaptured) by the villains of the piece, whilst secondary characters merely exist to provide exposition. Even when the opportunity presents itself to give the villains some actual depth, the moment is wasted in just a few short lines of dialogue and an unconvincing flashback.
It’s not a bad film in any shape or form, but when you compare Mary and the Witch’s Flower with what came before it, it definitely feels lesser then it’s predecessors. The lack of any genuine emotional moments or heavier themes feel like a wasted opportunity, especially when the last film from the same director had this in abundance. At best, Mary is lightweight fluff.
If you can look past the lack of character development or the disappointing A to B plot, then Mary and the Witch’s Flower is entertaining enough. In fact, it presents a perfect gateway into the Studio Ghibli canon (and anime in general) for small children. But if you are a seasoned anime fan with high hopes for another meaningful, complex fantasy, then there is little substance here beyond the basic story, despite the impressive and arresting animation.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower is released in UK cinemas on May 4th, available in both English dubbed and Japanese subtitled formats.