There was dismay among fans of animation when Japan’s adored Studio Ghibli stopped production in 2014 when founder Hayao Miyazaki retired (though both are set to make a comeback). Regardless, its spirit lives on, and former Ghibli director Hiromasa Yonebayashi demonstrates that from his new home, Studio Ponoc. Yonebayashi became Ghibli’s youngest director with The Secret World of Arrietty, based on classic children’s book The Borrowers. Now he takes another British kids’ classic – Mary Stewart’s The Little Broomstick – and transforms it into a colourful, creative adventure.
Mary (voiced in English by Ruby Barnhill) is spending the summer with her great-aunt Charlotte at a stately but too-empty country house. She spends her days largely outside, arguing with Peter (Louis Ashborne Serkis), a boy from the nearest village, and talking to the gardener, Zebedee (Rasmus Hardiker). But when a cat leads her to a strange flower in the wood, she ends up on a wild adventure to a school for witchcraft in the clouds. There she must save animals – and Peter – from being magically transformed by the untrustworthy Madame Mumblechook (Kate Winslet) and Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent).
It’s a very loose adaptation of the book, as was Howl’s Moving Castle and Arrietty, but there’s charm in the mix of English kid-lit tropes and the sort of wild imagination cultivated in Japanese animation. The script doesn’t have the emotional or moral depth of the greats, like Spirited Away or Grave Of The Fireflies, but neither is it weightless: this story argues for the responsible use of power and a respect for the natural world in a way that feels very Miyazaki. On this evidence, Yonebayashi makes a worthy heir to his former mentor, and Ponoc a decent substitute for Ghibli. Let’s hope they keep pushing the envelope.
Is this a good movie for kids?
The feisty, flawed Mary is an engaging and entertaining heroine, with her wild red hair, intrepid nature and occasional bad temper. Her loneliness at the start of the story will be relatable for some, as will the fact that she learns – of course! – to open up to new friendships.
There are moments here that might be frightening for very young children, especially those involving the magically-mutated creatures in Doctor Dee’s lab. There are also thrilling aerial chase scenes, with heroines on broomsticks fleeing large swarms of pursuers, and of course two villains in Mumblechook and Dee. That said, there is nothing graphic or truly grotesque, and the BBFC rating was a U, which feels about right.
The bigger problem for young viewers is likely to be the relatively lengthy 103 minute running time, perhaps causing some boredom in the middle sections. But overall it’s a good one: the colours and characters are bright and peppy enough to keep most entertained.