Studio Ponoc (heir to Studio Ghibli) has adapted Mary Stewart’s 1971 children’s book The Little Broomstick as its debut animated feature, with the title Mary and the Witch’s Flower, and ever since I found out about this in December 2016 I have been desperate to see it. On Tuesday evening, ahead of the UK release date of 4 May, there were advance screenings of the film in Japanese with English subtitles. Reader, I watched it. And loved it, and will certainly watch it again.
I saw Mary and the Witch’s Flower in the Cameo Cinema in Edinburgh. We were in Screen 2 and even although the event was sold out the room cannot hold more than about fifty people, so it was an intimate experience where you get a good idea of how others are reacting to the film too. I didn’t think to take a photo of the room but I spotted a tweet by @LesaLionHeart and she has kindly agreed to let me share her photo:
The Cameo provided goodies in the form of a poster and a sheet summarising the background to the film and film studio.
The Little Broomstick was named on the sheet but Mary Stewart herself was not. This was repeated in the ‘featurette’ that preceeded the film, where she was ‘the author’ rather than named, but she was of course named in the film credits. I found the featurette really interesting: members of the Ponoc team explained the meaning of Ponoc, how they scout locations rather than simply draw from photos, and I was pleased to hear that they wanted to honour the author’s obvious love and respect for nature.
Then the film began! Visually it is stunning, being beautifully drawn, colourful, highly imaginative and dynamic. I was hooked, both by the look of the film and by the story. There are of course differences between book and film but I felt that Mary and the Witch’s Flower stayed true to the spirit of the book. A central theme in all Mary Stewart novels is an examination of how ‘ordinary’ people react to wrong-doing and face up to danger. The heroine here, Mary Smith, is the youngest in a line of Mary Stewart heroines standing up for what is right, despite being afraid.
Mary Stewart’s love of animals shines through in her novels and nowhere more than in The Little Broomstick. The film version even adds to this with a short sequence where Mary follows Tib the cat not so much because she is bored and lonely but because he seems to be mysteriously changing colour from black to grey. The audience in Screen 2 greeted the solution to this mystery with a breath of laughter, showing how nicely this scene worked. There was more laughter when Mary spoke to her Great-Aunt Charlotte’s dog and the audience learned his name – I am sure this reaction would have pleased Mary Stewart immensely. Some suspenseful moments in the film caused many in the audience to gasp involuntarily, a sure sign that we were gripped by the narrative.
Very briefly, the narrative is one where Mary Smith follows a cat who leads her to a rare purple flower with magical powers. By sheer accident, she releases this power and a broomstick flies her off to Endor College, a place of unethical ‘science’ and witchcraft, where she meets Madam Mumblechook and Doctor Dee, and discovers sinister goings-on: ‘trespassers will be transformed’ is a rule followed with gusto at this school of witchcraft. Animals – and in the film a friend too – are in danger: how can Mary save them?
The film, then, has very suspenseful moments, just like Mary Stewart’s writing. And there is a quiet beauty to the film’s portrayal of the Shropshire countryside with its riots of flowers and fields of sheep, that also reflects Mary Stewart’s love of natural history and ability to write vivid setting. And one last detail that I loved – I was pleased to spot a tub of Celebrations in Great-Aunt Charlotte’s kitchen: you can read about how Ponoc Studio studied English life during their visit to Shropshire, leading them to include these chocolates in the film, in this Shropshire Star article. Both in its detail and in its scope, this film was highly enjoyable and I am looking forward to seeing it again in May, and to seeing the reactions of my children and my god-daughter.