AFI FEST 2017: Almost Magical ‘Mary and the Witch’s Flower’ ✮✮✮

There were days when the wind whipped up my hair into an unmanageable black bush and I fervently wished I had hair straighter than a ruler. And yet, I lived in a household where my mother loved my wavy Asian hair as a legacy of my grandmother. Wavy hair was not, in my grandmother’s era, considered proper Japanese hair and there are other Japanese women who have strongly advised me straightening it. Watching “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” made me smile and wish the little girl I once was had been able to watch it.

“Mary and the Witch’s Flower” is for all those girls (and boys) who have hair so wild it is almost an animal in itself, a pet to be tamed or trained. The movie is also for those who mourned the end of Studio Ghibli, a studio that has not quite died. Witness the co-production that resulted in the sensitive “The Red Turtle,” that also came to AFI FEST in 2016.

This animated feature is the first offering from a studio formed by former employees of Studio Ghibli, Studio Ponoc. Ponoc is taken from the Serbo-Croation word for “midnight” (pónoć ).  Founder Yoshiaki Nishimura produced the 2013 “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” and the 2014 “When Marnie Was There” for Studio Ghibli. Along with him Nishimura brought Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who directed “The Secret World of Arrietty” (2010) and “When Marnie Was There” (2014) for Studio Ghibli.

Midnight is the magical moment when a new day begins. “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” doesn’t capture the magic of Studio Ghibli’s “Spirited Away” or the “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,”  but it is better to compare it with Studio Ghibli’s adaptations from books, such as “Howl’s Moving Castle” or even “The Secret World of Arrietty” or “When Marnie Was There.”

“Mary and the Witch’s Flower” is based on Mary Stewart’s 1971 children’s novel, “The Little Broomstick.” Stewart (1916-2014) is best known for romantic mysteries, especially her Merlin series trilogy (“The Crystal Cave,” “The Hollow Hills” and “The Last Enchantment”).  Stewart’s 1962 novel “The Moon-Spinners” was made into a Disney movie starring Hayley Mills (her fifth of six with Disney) and featured silent film actress Pola Negri in her final film role.

“Mary and the Witch’s Flower” (メアリと魔女の花) is directed by Yonebashi and from his previous projects (“The Secret World of Arrietty” and “When Marnie Was There”) one suspects he likes British children’s stories. The movie begins with a mystery. A young red-haired girl escapes from a burning castle, pursued by bad guys, she flies into the moonlight on a broom.

Sometime later, we find ourselves following another red-head, a young girl named Mary who is too young to be interested in boys, but too old to be totally dependent on adults but not old enough to be on her own. She’s sent off to her Great Aunt Charlotte’s home in the English countryside. Her parents are somehow preoccupied, but Mary is too young to know or understand just why.

Mary has red-hair rashness. And while some might look before they leap, she hardly looks at all, a trait that Charlotte quite loves. There is a local boy, Peter, and he warns Mary to be more careful. Mary follows a cat into the nearby forest where she finds the mysterious Fly-by-Night flower and a broom. This particular flower blooms only once very seven years and seems to give Mary special powers. Mary is whisked away by the broomstick to a school for witches, Endor College.

You might think that Mary is too young for college and that’s the first hint that something is seriously wrong. The head mistress Madame Mumblechook and lecturer Doctor Dee seem to amazed by Mary and her powers. The other students are faceless replicants, another warning. Only Flanagan chides her for how she treats her trusty broom and informs her that the cat is a familiar.

Soon enough we’ll learn what Mumblechook and the doctor are up  to and just how Mary’s red-hair has meaning in this world and just who the other red-haired girl was and is.

“Mary and the Witch’s Flower” is a sweet tale about a young girl learning who to trust and finding the courage to do the right thing and, of course, learning to be proud of her untamed hair. This isn’t Studio Ghibli but a sign that there were seeds planted and they will continue to grow. The magic survives in the students and Japanese animation will continue to delight.

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