The newly formed Studio Ponoc proves a worthy spiritual successor to Studio Ghibli with their debut feature, Mary And The Witch's Flower, directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who previously made both Arietty and When Marnie Was Here under the Ghibli banner. As with Yonebayashi's first two features, Mary And The Witch's Flower is once again based on a classic British children's novel – Mary Stewart’s The Little Broomstick, originally published in 1971 – and it retains both the signature Ghibli style and many of the themes that characterise the studio's best work.
Like many of Studio Ghibli's films, the story features a wide-eyed and imaginative young girl, in this case Mary, who discovers a mysterious plant that gives her magical powers (complete with a flying broomstick) while she's spending the summer in the English countryside. The broomstick flies Mary to the Endor College of Magic, where Mary impresses its principal, Madam Mumblechook (Kate Winslet), as well as the mysterious Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent). However, when the duo discover the source of Mary's powers, they enact a dastardly plan to force her to reveal the plant's location.
The animation is utterly gorgeous throughout, from the naturalistic renderings of the English fields and woodlands to the fantastical environments of Endor College. One particular highlight is the design of Doctor Dee's mad scientist laboratory, which is every bit as delightful as you might imagine.
On a similar note, the character designs are extremely charming, especially Mary, who could almost be a slightly older version of Miyazaki's Ponyo with her unruly red hair and natural exuberance. There are also a number of colourful supporting characters and inventive touches, from the various anthropomorphic animals (a boar-like chef is amusingly reminiscent of the talking dish in Douglas Adams' The Restaurant at the End of the Universe) to the creepy dolphin-like fighter planes that give chase to Mary in one of several exciting sequences.
Thematically, the film is very much of a piece with its Ghibli predecessors, with a focus on the heroine's discovery of her own inner strength and a sense of self-worth.
The English language voice dubs on the Studio Ghibli movies are always exceptional and Mary And The Witch's Flower preserves that tradition, with strong, characterful performances from Barnhill, Winslet and Broadbent, with the latter in particular letting his inner mad scientist fly. Purists will of course prefer the original subtitled version, but both are excellent, so why not treat yourself and see it both subbed and dubbed?