Virtually all the ingredients that have made Studio Ghibli movies so appealing around the world — a wide-eyed young protagonist, a freewheeling supernatural adventure and clean, colorful animation drawn by hand — combine to form the first feature from Studio Ponoc, a new independent Japanese anime company formed by Ghibli veterans to carry on the kind of high-quality animation of their former workplace. True to that mission, director Hiromasa Yonebayashi delivers a family-friendly treasure every bit as enchanting as his two previous films, “Arriety” and “When Marnie Was Here” (both made at Ghibli), with this tale of a clumsy redheaded girl who’s mysteriously granted access to an exclusive Hogwarts-like school for witches.
British novelist Mary Stewart’s beloved “The Little Broomstick” predates J.K. Rowling’s hit Harry Potter series by more than a quarter-century, which means the source material is original, even if its gorgeous big-screen adaptation feels a bit derivative in places — and derivative of not just Rowling’s more richly imagined fantasy world, but also Ghibli’s own “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” which presents a similar plot, in reverse: There, a young witch with a flying broom loses her powers, whereas in this case, young Mary discovers a magical broom that whisks her away to Endor College, where she’s celebrated for her newfound abilities.
Produced with a fraction of the budget and crew that Studio Ghibli typically had to work at its disposal, this remarkable achievement functions as a compelling proof of concept for Studio Ponoc and has been justly rewarded with strong box office in Japan. And yet, however considerable the film’s charms (it’s first-rate children’s entertainment, to be sure), there’s something just the slightest bit disappointing in how pro-forma it all feels: Ghibli geniuses Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki never clung to a house style, making films with wildly different looks and tones over the course of their careers, whereas Yonebayashi’s first post-Ghibli effort colors well within the lines of stock Japanese animation. Character design (especially that of the generic-looking Mary, with her big eyes and standard anime proportions), locations and even the overall story arc do little to assert a new identity or fresh creative possibilities for the upstart outfit.
That said, “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” does diverge somewhat even from Yonebayashi’s previous features, which were also adapted from British young-adult novels, in that it calls for a couple of thrilling chase sequences and several bombastic set pieces. After introducing the magical plant of the film’s title — a phosphorescent wild berry that blooms just once every seven years — the movie settles into the bucolic lull of its rural surroundings, as Mary (voiced by Ruby Barnhill in the English-language version) unpacks her belongings at her new home, a charming cottage belonging to her Great-Aunt Charlotte (Lynda Baron).
Mary desperately wants to be of help, but she’s kind of a klutz, and even the blond-haired neighbor boy Peter (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) doesn’t know what to make of the backwards new girl. One day, she spots what appears to be a color-changing cat (the actual explanation is a cute surprise) and follows it into the woods, where she discovers both the Witch’s Flower and an abandoned broom — which is conveniently just her size, wasting no time in whisking her away into the clouds and off to Endor College.
Mary is understandably overwhelmed by her discovery, and it takes her some time to realize, first, that she’s not dreaming and, later, that she has the strange plant to thank for her newfound (yet temporary) powers, impressive even to magical schoolmasters and Madam Mumblechook (Kate Winslet) and Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbest). Once the covetous pair realize the true explanation, they turn on Mary and insist that she reveal where she found the Witch’s Flower, sparking a big finale in which they kidnap Peter and attempt to transform him into the kind of malevolent shape-shifter so often encountered in the third act of anime films (such as “Akira’s” all-consuming atomic mass). What makes this particular finale work is the fact that Mary must look inward to defeat her more powerful rivals, relying on bravery and a firm belief in herself, rather than magic — all of which is a far cry from the shy, two-left-footed young lady we met at the outset.
As the new kid in an unfamiliar setting, Mary doesn’t yet have many acquaintances, which leads to an unusual connection with her “little broomstick” — as she calls the device, which swiftly becomes her new best friend (and even forces her to tears when it snaps late in the story), although the bond is never as strong as one a child might have to a beloved pet or pony. Meanwhile, the film is full of anthropomorphic animals and magical critters, some of whom work for witches’ academy (including boar-like chefs who prepare elaborate meat dishes, seemingly oblivious to the cannibalistic connotations) while others are captives of Doctor Dee’s dastardly experiments.
Curiously enough, though director Yonebayashi clearly fetishizes the romantic countryside setting of such European stories for Mary’s time with her family, the school itself is quite unlike anything we’ve seen — making it easy to understand why Mary might think she’s dreaming. The first creature she meets is a talking rodent, who leads her to an elaborate fountain where headmistress Mumblechook emerges from an elaborate water show. The facility shares none of Hogwarts’ dark, gothic creepiness, but instead sparkles like a cross between an ultra-modern Asian shopping center and Willy Wonka’s candy-colored chocolate factory (with scary corners where the secrets are kept).
It’s here in the movie’s more fantastical details that Yonebayashi’s imagination runs free — and Studio Ponoc’s potential shines brightest. The world they’ve created may not be logical, but it is intuitive, as Mary adapts to whatever hallucinatory wonder or obstacle the filmmakers can throw at her, from a helpful herd of wild animals to a menacing hand made of black ooze. Through it all, a lively English-language voice cast bring added dimension to the various characters, making it seem odd when Japanese band Sekai no Owari’s mellow “Rain” plays over the film’s curious slide-show epilogue.