In 2013, Studio Ghibli’s visionary filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement. Rumors swirled that Studio Ghibli was ending things completely. It was looking pretty grim for one of the last holdouts of hand-drawn animation in a landscape dominated by Pixar and Dreamworks. With the end imminent, many of the studio’s talented animators jumped ship to form their own company in hopes of keeping that style of animation and story-telling alive.

Though Studio Ghibli has since co-produced the film The Red Turtle and Miyazaki has confirmed he won’t be retiring after all (he’s committed to at least one more film), for the team of creatives that left, it was too little too late. Studio Ponoc – that team of enthusiastic Studio Ghibli alum – have now made their feature film debut with Mary and the Witch’s Flower directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi and adapted from Mary Stewart’s 1971 book, The Little Broomstick.

The story opens on a young red-headed witch fleeing a burning building with a little bag in hand. She is pursued by a masked villain and a group of disturbing dolphin-bug creatures who want what’s in the bag. Jumping on her magical broomstick, she gives chase through the night sky. Unfortunately, the girl is soon struck by her pursuers and she, her broomstick, and the bag all fall to the earth. As the sack spills open, we see what all the excitement was about. It contained luminescent blue flower seeds that scatter about and take root in the land.

Several decades later, a new red-headed preteen is on the scene. Mary Smith (voiced by Ruby Barnhill of The BFG) has moved to her Great Aunt Charlotte’s quiet home in the countryside while her parents are off doing some kind of long-term work (it’s never really explained). While Mary is eager to help those around her, offering to do chores and run errands, she is clumsy and often does more harm than good.

One day, as she be moans her situation (she’s starting at a new school; her hair is way too frizzy;she’s a klutz, etc.) to a cat that has crossed her path, it unceremoniously departs for the woods nearby. Mary follows the creature through some twists and turns and ends up stumbling upon the long-lost glowing blue flowers – now in full bloom.

Taken with their beauty, she plucks one and brings it home to put in her window. It’s pretty, yes, but nothing seems out of the ordinary about it – until, on a separate journey into the woods, she discovers the long-hidden broomstick of the witch as well. As luck would have it, she finds that by smashing the berries of the flower together, her hands, and consequently the broomstick she’s holding, are imbued with magical powers. A little blue goop and just like that, she’s whizzing through the air, up into the clouds with the poor cat clinging on for dear life, too.

The broom seems to know where it is going, as it takes her straight to the stables (a place where people dock their brooms like horses) at the edge of a floating school for gifted magical persons called Endor College. In a case of mistaken identity, she quickly finds herself on a guided tour of the school by none other than its founders, the formidable Headmistress Mumblechook (voiced by Kate Winslet) and the egg-headed professor Dr. D. (Jim Broadbent). They tell her all about the courses offered at the school, which range from Chemistry to Invisibility.

Thanks to her flower power, so to speak, Mary is mistaken by the adults not just as a prospective student but as a prodigy with innate and exceedingly powerful gifts. They aren’t just giving a tour anymore, they’re courting her. Perhaps she could be the school’s student ambassador or the head of this club or that given how very talented she is, the Headmistress coos. Mary accepts the spotlight cast upon her, not used to being praised.

However, as with any tale of false identity, it isn’t long before Mary is found out. The villains who chased down the girl in the opening scene are now on to her! They know she knows where the flower grows and can bring it to them. They plan to perform a monstrous and possibly deadly experiment using its magic, and they’re willing to stop at nothing to get it done. Before long it is up to Mary, a girl merely posing as a witch, to save the day.

When compared to a Miyazaki piece, people will at best feel a little disappointed by Mary and the Witch’s Flower and at worst be downright offended. Viewed through that Studio Ghibli lens, the film a mish-mash of shamelessly borrowed characters and themes from Howl’s Moving Castle, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Spirited Away. There is a thin line between homage and intellectual theft, and Studio Ponoc is dancing on either side of it with abandon.

It doesn’t just feel like stealing from Miyazaki, though. It feels like a knock-off of a lot of other films that have done the kid-thrust-into-a-magical-world thing before. The school is Hogwarts-esque certainly. Stewart’s tale pre-dates the Harry Potter series, yes, but it’s now the gold standard for fantasy schools, so the film can’t help but feel like a copycat. Even the name Endor College is a little hard on the ears for anyone familiar with the Forest Moon of Endor in the Star Wars series.

So, if you’re going to enjoy this movie, you really have to go into it with a blank slate. This will be hard for many die-hard anime fans hoping for more Studio Ghibli magic, but if viewed simply as a children’s film, it really does have a lot to offer. Every scene is beautiful animated, with cloudscapes and close-ups of plant life that feel like photographs. The hard-lined characters walking through these dreamy backdrops have an entrancingly videogame-like quality.

Further, the characters are very cute. Flanagan, a quirky, fox-like creature who speaks with a sing-songy Scottish brogue, in particular will get many laughs. Mary herself is a relatable and likable character that any young person might see themselves in. The story – though it admittedly drags a bit — is really entertaining. You’ll like following our little protagonist from one place to the next and wondering what she’ll discover next.

At the end of the day, there is something to be said for this group of veteran animators coming together and saying “You know what, we’re going to keep this thing going.” It is a spirit that is definitely present in the film itself. So if not for the reasons mentioned above, that alone makes it worth a watch.

Catch Mary and the Witch’s Flower in theaters now.

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