The first thing that strikes you about this new anime is how much it looks like a Studio Ghibli film. The second is how beautifully painted the backgrounds are, picking out the flora and fauna in luscious detail.These are no coincidences –much of the creative team had worked at Ghibli for many years, and director Hiromasa Yonebayashi was responsible for Arrietty and When Marnie Was There.
Like the aforementioned films, Mary And The Witch’s Flower –the debut feature from Studio Ponoc –is based on a British children’s book. It’s about a bored girl who follows a black cat into an eerie forest, picks a rare flower that gives her temporary witch powers, then jumps on a discarded broom which zooms her away to a magic school in the clouds, presided over by a power-crazed duo based on Elizabeth I and her occult confidant John Dee.
The moral of this tale should be don’t trust cats, but it’s actually about trusting in your own abilities and digging deep to do the right thing. Kids will probably love the brave, well-rounded heroine, plentiful action and Hogwarts-style school, but the film has enough of a creepy edge to keep adults entertained too.
Yonebayashi has tapped into some Ghibli magic – with creatures and concepts that are just the right side of nightmarish – but the story is as unruly as Mary’s broom. Allegiances change without clear motivation, the history of the broom and Mary’s heritage isn’t fully explored, and you can’t help feeling that Yonebayashi may have got carried away with flamboyant visuals when he needed to be honing the narrative.
Mary And The Witch’s Flower is, however, a promising start from Studio Ponoc, harking back to the ‘good old days’ when Ghibli made epic, fantastical films that didn’t dwell on loss or old age. If you’re after some colourful fun this’ll do the trick, but let’s hope Ponoc’s next film offers as much for the brain as it does for the eyeballs.