Mary and the Witch’s Flower
The school is on fire and a young red-haired girl flees the scene, chased by one-eyed monsters and mini dinosaur-like birds. Based on The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, Mary and the Witch’s Flower dives straight into this intense first scene, introducing us to a magical world of flying broomsticks, instantly growing forests, magical flowers and female action heroes.
Mary Smith (Ruby Barnhill) is lonely and bored. Arriving ahead of her parents at her great aunt’s isolated country estate, the protagonist spends her days trying (and failing) to make herself visible to the house staff. When she meets a mean-looking black cat called Tib and his grey girlfriend Gib, the young lady is led into the mysterious local woods and discovers a luminous flower called a “fly by night”. When Gib goes missing, Mary attempts to find her, and instead discovers a broomstick which flies her to a magical land complete with a witch’s school. Initially impressed with Endor College, the heroine soon discovers that headmistress Madame Mumblechook (Kate Winslet) and science teacher Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent) are up to no good. When they kidnap a boy from the village, Mary re-enters the magical world to save him.
The film is visually compelling. Everything is animated, but the amount of detail in the shots of nature makes the forest appear real. This is an action-packed movie and the quality of the cartoons brings the colourful storms, chase sequences and explosions to life. The interior of Endor is like Hogwarts with its many staircases and flying lessons, but the weirdness of the college grounds – which resemble a huge, creepy playground with huge fish swimming in the bushes – is unlike anything you’ve seen on screen before. The collision of science and magic – with chemistry classes and futuristic gyms – adds a sense of freshness to the story. The instrumental soundtrack works well with the action; faced paced tunes heighten the dynamic shots while soft, magical noises add atmosphere to the forest scenes.
It is understandable that Mary and the Witch’s Flower is released in English in the UK – a younger audience may find subtitles frustrating and difficult to concentrate on – but it may have flowed better in the original Japanese. Barnhill’s voice is clear and well-spoken, but sometimes the way her words are delivered doesn’t feel entirely natural or in keeping with the action. Some of the characters also lack depth; while it’s normal for villains to have a lack of personality in children’s films, Mumblechook and Dee weren’t originally evil and some more conflict in their arcs would have been a good touch. Mary’s great-aunt Charlotte has an action-packed past, so this also could have been explored further.
It is refreshing, however, to have strong female lead in a movie for kids. The protagonist spends most of the movie trying to rescue Peter (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) – a boy from the village who teased her about her hair – from Doctor Dee’s dastardly plans, plus at the beginning of the feature she doesn’t think twice about entering the spooky, misty woods to try and rescue a lost cat. We have moved on from the days where princes rescuing princesses was the norm, but it’s still uncommon to see the story in reverse. It’s something young girls (and boys) should get used to.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower is released in select cinemas on 4th May 2018.
Watch the trailer for Mary and the Witch’s Flower here: