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Mary and the Witch's Flower review - stunning visuals but with little substance

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Mary and the Witch’s Flower is the debut film from the recently formed Studio Ponoc, the spiritual successors to the beloved Studio Ghibli, and is based on the book The Little Broomstick.

Showroom Workstation

Though the film does carry the Ghibli charm and look through, it lacks the depth to put it on par with the former studio’s past features.

Mary (Ruby Barnhill) is a feisty young girl with scruffy red hair living in the countryside with her Great-Aunt Charlotte (Lynda Baron). When walking in the woods on a misty day, Mary stumbles across a strange, glowing flower, which she later discovers can grant magical powers for a limited time. Using her new-found abilities, Mary finds herself at Endor College, a school for witches and warlocks alike, where she soon discovers that there are those who would use the source of her power for more sinister motives.

The world of Mary and the Witch’s Flower is presented beautifully with the high quality, hand-drawn animation Ghibli was famous for. The film uses lots of bright, bold colours to great effect, particularly with Endor College, a fantastical setting that is sure to evoke memories of Harry Potter. Some of the character designs too are fantastic, with the magical setting allowing for a variety of strange creatures to be included.

The problem however, is that that the story has no real emotional core, and Mary herself isn’t very compelling a character. Whilst fierce on the surface, Mary has no real arc throughout the movie and a lot of the issues she has in the beginning not being solved by the end. A lot of her character traits, such as her clumsiness and scruffy red hair, are used for humour more than anything, and whilst this works, it’s a poor substitute for what could have made a more complex character. This is fairly disappointing, especially when considering some of the strong female protagonists the film's creators have helped to conceive in the past.

This disconnect with Mary subsequently makes it difficult to really care about what’s happening in the story. The plot is entertaining enough so that the film is never boring, but everything from Mary’s often passive role in the narrative, as well as forced relationships and weakly motivated villains, means that the only thing dragging you through the film is a vague interest in how it will all be resolved. The only real relationship that comes close to tugging at the heartstrings is one involving a cat named Tib, a great side character that does stand out.

That being said, there is a definite charm to the film that feels somewhat familiar. There is an enchanting atmosphere present throughout, whether Mary's wandering through the small village, or shooting around the college on a broom. This is in no small part down to Takatsugu Muramatsu’s wonderful soundtrack, which perfectly suits the magical theme of the film.

Overall, there’s just enough Studio Ghibli in Mary and the Witch’s Flower to keep it a good Japanese animation, with the film marking a steady start for Studio Ponoc. However, the stunning visuals don’t quite make up for the otherwise average story.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower is out now, distributed by Altitude.

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