Mary and the Witch’s Flower is the first film from newly-minted Studio Ponoc, an inheritor to the briefly-defunct Studio Ghibli. Mary director Hiromasa Yonebayashi worked for Ghibli – first as an animator, then director (of The Secret World of Arrietty and When Marnie was There) – and retains an affection for the studio’s output that’s obvious in this film.
Mary might be, like Arrietty and Marnie before it, is an adaptation of an English novel, but every frame is stuffed with visual and narrative allusions to Ghibli films past; particularly, given the witch-centric setting, Kiki’s Delivery Service. That lends Mary a comforting familiarity, as though recalling the feeling of rewatching your favourite Ghibli film for the umpteenth time.
The problem is – and it’s an admittedly minor problem – that the best Ghibli films sing with surprises and originality. Mary’s familiarity means its characters and setting feel a little …stock. The titular character, a girl who discovers she’s a witch, feels like any young heroine, while the villains – voiced by Kate Winslet and Jim Broadbent in the English dub – lack the layered complexity granted to most Ghibli baddies. There’s a charming lightness to the film, but it lacks the substance of the great Ghiblis.