“MARY AND THE WITCH’S FLOWER”
The heroine of “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” — that would be Mary — may not technically be an orphan, but for narrative purposes she might as well be. Exiled to the care of her great-aunt while her parents attend to some unspecified business, Mary is a bored, lonely, curious child, and therefore a perfect candidate for a fantastical adventure. Shunted aside by the grown-ups and mocked by the only other young person in the rustic village of Red Manor, a cute boy named Peter, Mary soon acquires a black cat, a broomstick and a cluster of enchanted purple blossoms.
Based on “The Little Broomstick,” a durably popular novel by Mary Stewart, and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” is a charming children’s entertainment that sometimes seems to have been engineered from other such entertainments. The rustling forests and voluptuous clouds recall the work of Hayao Miyazaki, and Mary herself shows an obvious kinship to the young witch in “Kiki’s Delivery Service.” (Yonebayashi worked as an animator on several of Miyazaki’s films.) Mary also resembles both Harry Potter and Hermione Granger, especially once she makes her way to a school of magic called Endor.
One of the teachers there speaks in the voice of Jim Broadbent, who played Professor Horace Slughorn in a couple of “Harry Potter” movies. Lack of originality is not a crime, though, and children’s literature is an art of recombination perhaps more than of invention. Children are comforted by familiarity as much as they are enchanted by strangeness, and “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” has enough of both.
Endor is an appealingly weird mix of medievalism and science fiction, presided over by an imperious headmistress voiced by Kate Winslet. The plot is packed with incidents and surprises, and Mary is an admirable character, full of pluck and decency and prone to the usual anime expressions of loud amazement.
Adult fans of the genre — or of the Harry Potter chronicles — will find the movie perfectly tolerable, and might treat it as a gateway for the more sublime pleasures of Miyazaki’s best work. The spell Yonebayashi casts is effective, but also ephemeral. It’s minor magic.