Mary and the Witch’s Flower has a cold open worthy of any Bond or Marvel movie. Amidst an Ewok-style village clinging to a set of towering trees, a mysterious figure flees on a flying broom from a horde of airborne, squid-like pursuers. In her hands she carries a glowing blue object, an image of hypnotic beauty and pulsating power.
Things calm down considerably after the credits, where we meet the title character, a young teen, on a beautifully landscaped English estate. As he did with 2012’s masterful The Secret World of Arrietty, director Hiromasa Yonebayashi is adapting the work of a British author, in this case Mary Stewart. The story follows Mary’s discovery of the title flower in the nearby woods, as well as the world of witchcraft and wizardry it opens for her.
Those early establishing scenes of the English garden are Yonebayashi’s trademark; as in Arrietty, they apply an appreciative magnifying glass to overlooked natural wonders. I could get lost in the fronds and flowers, bugs and water droplets, for hours. The rest of the imagery—especially once we’re drawn into the movie’s fantasy world—is more imaginatively dazzling, even if much of it betrays Yonebayashi’s early career assisting on the films of Hayao Miyazaki. There are echoes of the magical forest of My Neighbor Totoro, the cat from Kiki’s Delivery Service, the robots from Castle in the Sky, and the untrustworthy older women in Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away, to name just a few. Balancing all these influences with its own animated artistry, Mary and the Witch’s Flower turns homage into a richly rewarding adventure.