Somebody figured out that what fans of witch and wizard stories revel in is the cornucopia of critters, gadgets, spells and talismans.
Somebody figured out that witches, warlocks and wizards learn their trade somewhere — probably an enchanted, inaccessible school.
And that somebody discovered this long before J.K. Rowling came along.
Mary Stewart’s “The Littlest Broom,” the basis for the Japanime “Mary and the Witch’s Flower,” was published in 1971. And watching this new-to-Netflix (it had a short Fathom Events theatrical release) film is like taking a peek into the many influences Rowling synthesized into her Potter world.
It’s a lovely looking anime outing — not from Studio Ghibli — that, like Potter, hurls exposition and fresh “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” at us, from opening scene to last.
The set-up, a girl “mistaken” for a witch, a never-ending string of introductions to the elements of this world, a rescue quest, is straight up “Hero’s Journey” of Joseph Campbell, and absurdly unsurprising. But for any Potter fan longing for a little taste of that sort of thing, it probably fills the bill.
A girl escapes from a mansion, fleeing by broom. But it’s a harried flight, her bag of magic beans spill out and…we cut to years later.
Young Mary (voiced by Ruby Barnhill) is staying with her great aunt in a great house in the English countryside. She’s a tween, a bit of a klutz and lonely. If only school would start!
“Nothing good ever seems to happen in my life!”
But a chance trek into the woods following some cats lets her find bright blue flowers. They are “Fly by Night”flowers, the gardener tells her. They bloom every seven years and the locals also call them “The Witch’s Flower.”
Mary has plucked one. The cats freak out, and fog and lightning and whatnot dust up in the woods. Before you know it, Mary’s discovered a kid-sized broom and the darned thing has whisked her to Steampunk U in the clouds.
Actually, it’s Endor College. Being a redhead, naturally they take her for a witch, a first-year kid. Characters like the Scots-accented broom-handler/wolfman Flanagan (Ewen Bremner), the heavyweight Headmistress Madame Mumblechoo (Kate Winslet) and bigheaded mad scientist Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent) are sure she’s “a prodigy,” and give her the grand tour — a feast of classes, magical activities and weird things that make magical life easier. They also give her the run of the place.
Only Mary isn’t…a prodigy. It’s just that talismans — the flowers, the broom, a book of spells — keeping dropping her in lap.
When Madame M. finds out, there’ll be heck to pay. That means she’s going after the only boy Mary’s met in Redmanor village, Peter (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, you know who’s kid?). And Mary’s fate is sealed.
“All trespassers will be TRANSFORMED!” That’s the big thing at Endor, Dr. Dee’s transformation experiments. Mary and/or Peter could end up as some caged critter of the Mad Doc’s design.
I love the color palette of anime films, the impressionistic backgrounds, with characters, structures, trees etc. in the foreground drawn in sharp, realistic images. The animation is still, after the advent of computer assistant, jerky — almost by design these days.
“Mary and the Witch’s Flower” isn’t particularly Japanese (a real appeal of these films) and isn’t built out of the most engrossing or exciting script. Studio Ghibli’s “Kiki’s Delivery Service” and “Spirited Away” covered similar ground in a much more interesting way.
Director Hirosama Yonebayashi is best known for animating Western kid lit (His “Secret World of Arrietty” is adapted from “The Borrowers”). He doesn’t have the Hiyao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away”) touch. The screenplays he directs need juicing — more jokes, better sight gags.
But the creatures, settings and gadgets are real eye candy and hold our attention. It’s more for kids than adult anime fans, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Who knows what child watching today will be the next J.K. Rowling, inspired by all the witchery/wizardry jiggery pokery this world introduces?
MPAA Rating: PG for some action and thematic elements
Cast: The voices of Ruby Barnhill, Kate Winslet Jim Broadbent and Ewen Bremner
Credits:Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, script by Riko Sakaguchi and David and Lynda Freedman (English), based on the Mary Stewart novel “The Littlest Broomstick. A Studio Ponoc/GKids/Universal release.
Running time: 1:43