In 2014, Studio Ghibli announced that it was going to be halting production on new animated features after the retirement of legendary director Hayao Miyazaki. The following year, Yoshiaki Nishimura announced plans to take several employees with him and form Studio Ponoc.
Two years later, Studio Ponoc is releasing their beautiful first feature film, “Mary and the Witch's Flower.” Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi ("When Marnie Was There") and based on Mary Stewart's "The Little Broomstick," the film introduces us to Mary, a young red-haired girl who has been sent to live in the countryside with her great-aunt Charlotte.
No matter what she attempts, Mary tends to make a mess. She's a bit of a klutz, frequently breaking things around her. She certainly doesn't do this on purpose, but it causes some stressful moments in her new home. After meeting two cats, Tib and Gib, she follows them into the woods, where she comes upon a clearing. The earth around her almost appears scorched, with the exception of a beautiful bunch of mysterious blue flowers growing out of an old stump. She picks some of the flowers and finds an old broomstick leaning up against a tree.
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When she dusts off the broomstick and hops aboard, it takes her straight to Endor College, a school for witches. Those newly discovered flowers have given her some surprisingly strong powers. The teachers there believe she is a prodigy, and it gives Mary confidence, even if only temporarily. One of the rules at the college is that any "trespassers will be transformed." When they discover that Mary is not a real witch, her troubles go from bad to worse.
This is a fanciful tale reminiscent of "Kiki's Delivery Service." It may lack the gravitas of Miyazaki's best works, but it's certainly a worthwhile successor to them. Since many of the animators have come from the world of Ghibli, it's not too surprising that it still feels very much a part of that world. It does incorporate some advanced digital effects alongside the traditionally hand-drawn animation but manages to feel familiar. For their first movie, Studio Ponoc shows great promise. It will be interesting to see if they stray from the path well traveled in future features.
"Mary and the Witch's Flower" screens again at Fantastic Fest at 11:30 a.m. Sept. 27. An English dub featuring the voice talents of Ruby Barnhill, Kate Winslet and Jim Broadbent has already been completed, and GKIDS will release both dubbed and subtitled editions of the movie later this year.
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