For Hiromasa Yonebayashi, there’s no better place to start an adventure than with a bored girl looking out a window.
Yonebayashi is a veteran animator from Japan’s beloved Studio Ghibli who directed enchanting films like “When Marnie Was There” and “The Secret World of Arriety." He also was an animator on the Ghibli masterpiece “Spirited Away.” Each of the films feature a strong-willed but sweet young heroine, left to her own devices, who goes exploring and finds wonder and enchantment.
When Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki announced that he was retiring and shutting down Studio Ghibli, Yonebayashi and several other Ghibli veterans started their own studio, Studio Ponoc, to carry on the tradition of making hand-drawn, two-dimensional animation. Fortunately, Miyazaki changed his mind on retirement, and now both studios are making lovingly detailed, visually inventive movies for fans worldwide.
“Mary and the Witch’s Flower,” which has a one-night-only showing Thursday at Marcus Point and Marcus Palace Cinemas, follows sure-footedly in that tradition. Based on the book “The Little Broomstick” by Mary Stewart, the film employs familiar tropes of witchcraft — cats, broomsticks, spell books — and then takes them in thrillingly original directions.
Mary (voiced by Ruby Barnhill in the dubbed English version playing in U.S. theaters) is stuck at the house of her great aunt Charlotte (Lynda Baron) in a new town, awaiting the arrival of her parents. While she makes one friend at her new school, her only real companion is her great aunt’s cat Sib. One funny thing about Sib — he seems to be able to change color on command.
While chasing Sib into a nearby forest one day, Mary comes across a mysterious plant called a “fly-by-night.” The luminous purple plant is supposed to only grow once every seven years, and is rumored to grant magical powers. Those rumors are confirmed when, a few minutes later, Mary finds herself riding a broomstick high into the sky.
The broomstick ride takes her to Endor, a school for magic run by Madame Mumblechook (Kate Winslet) and Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent). Hogwarts this isn’t — instead of an imposing castle, Endor is a colorful, vibrant place, a cross between Oz and Disneyland. Teachers ride scorpion-shaped mechanical devices around the classroom. Mary discovers a strange menagerie full of hybrid creatures like a koala-bat or a bear with butterfly wings.
Mary is mistaken for one of Endor’s new recruits, and she’s so entranced with the place that she doesn’t notice that her new instructors may not be as nice as they first appear.
The writing (at least in the English translated version) in “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” isn’t particularly strong, especially compared to Stewart's prose. It’s a little frustrating to hear such talented actors as Winslet and Broadbent play such one-note characters.
But Barnhill makes Mary an appealing young heroine, and the film constantly dazzles the eye, the screen bursting with colorful action and imaginatively designed characters. "Mary and the Witch's Flower" doesn't reach the heights of the best Studio Ghibli film, but it shows the studio's magical influence is alive and well.