It must be hard for Hiromasa Yonebayashi. After leaving Studio Ghibli during its hiatus, the director of The Secret World of Arrietty should have been pumping his creative juices into his Ponoc studio's first project. Unfortunately, after watching his latest work Mary and the Witch's Flower, it's apparent that Yonebayashi can't seem to craft a film whose story is as strong as its art.
Based on the book The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, Mary and the Witch's Flower focuses on the titular character (Ruby Barnhill) settling into her new surroundings. She has no friends, and appears to have the knack of creating more messes when she's supposed to be helping out. While following the cats of local boy Peter (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), Mary stumbles upon a flower that may contain magical powers. After discovering a broom in a tree's roots, the young girl is whisked away to Endor College, a school for witchcraft and wizardry.
There she meets the headmistress Madam Mumblechook (Kate Winslet), who assumes Mary is a new pupil. While giving a tour and introducing her to Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent), Mary displays some magical power that amazes the students and faculty. However, when she reveals that her magic might have been caused by the flower, Mumblechook makes it her mission to find the flower's origin, resulting in Peter being captured. From there, Mary musters up the courage and as much spell power as she can to save Peter and return to her normal life.
It's very apparent that Yonebayashi is aiming to continue on the Ghibli legacy, especially when it comes to recreating its visual appeal. Perhaps the best thing about Mary and the Witch's Flower, the animation simply jumps off the screen and tickles your imagination. The beauty and detail in the countryside, castles, and gardens are simply marvelous, bringing forth some of the best-looking hand-drawn animation in years. When in action -- especially when it comes time for some magic -- the movement flows stunningly and seamlessly, like a taffy-pulling machine readying a batch of its delicious treats.
However, just because a movie is beautiful to look at doesn't mean it will be entertaining. And sadly, that's where this film's biggest fault lies. While trying to keep it whimsical in the animation department, Yonebayashi and his screenwriting partner Riko Sakaguchi forgot to place the magic in both the story arcs and the dialogue. Perhaps it's because we've been spoiled by the likes of Harry Potter, Little Witch Academia, and The Familiar of Zero, but the way the magic is being explained and presented lacks a certain flair and personality. What you're seeing is wowing your imagination, but the way Mumblechook and Doctor Dee demonstrate how to do it is kind of boring.
With that being said, the writing doesn't take away from the performances of its voice actors, all of whom deliver their lines with fiery passion. Barnhill's Mary gets the right amount of spunk and childlike mannerisms as Mary, with Serkis's Peter delivering a charming and rambunctious personality. Winslet does an upstanding job acting two-faced with Mumblechook, starting off as an enthusiastic lover of magic and then transforming her into a greed-infused devil of a woman. Broadbent's Doctor Dee showcases all sorts of angry mad scientist personalities, crafting a kooky professor who's had as many flaws as he's had successes. Perhaps the best out of the bunch is Ewen Bremmer's Flanagan, an angry Scottish fox who'd give Groundskeeper Willie a run for his money.
While Mary and the Witch's Flower has many visual strengths and a good batch of characters, it doesn't help that its story falls flat. Even during its climax, which is budding with such eye-popping detail and magic, I couldn't help but look at my watch and wonder when this journey would reach its end. It's a real shame that a film this gorgeous doesn't have a tale that's just as grand and memorable, but Mary and the Witch's Flower is one anime film that's better to look at than it is to actually watch. Note to Yonebayashi: next time you wish to make a film, you'd be best to stay sitting in the director's chair while leaving the writing to someone else.
Promotional consideration provided by Lucy Rubin of GKIDS