If Studio Ghibli made a film where Harry Potter was a girl, Hogwarts looked like Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, and the whole thing turned into Akira, you'd basically have Mary and the Witch's Flower.
However, it's not a Studio Ghibli film. Based on a book called The Little Broomstick by Mary Franklin, Mary and the Witch's Flower is the first film from the brand new Japanese animation house Studio Ponoc. And for a first film, it sets a high bar of quality, equal to their better-known competitor. The film is filled with lots of familiar tropes, but it's done with such a bright, contagious innocence, you can't help but fall in love with it.
Mary is a young girl who has moved in with her aunt ahead of a new school year. With a week to go before classes start, no friends, and no TV, she's crazy bored. So one day she wanders into the woods, finds a special flower, and her life is changed forever. As the title gives away, it's a witch's flower and it reveals that above the clouds is a wonderful world of magic.
Which, yes, sounds a little like Harry Potter. And yes, there's also a magic school. But Mary is an outsider and isn't supposed to be in this world. So that's pretty much where the comparisons end. Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi made a name for himself with films at Studio Ghibli so the visuals are much more comparable to the work of Hayao Miyazaki than anything else. The movie may look bold and weird, but Mary's story is such a sprawling adventure, the juxtaposition of the two keeps the whole movie fresh. Just when you think it's going one way, it goes another, and that only adds to the whimsical feeling that pervades throughout the movie.
Whimsy is a very important part of a movie like this. If a big, animated film doesn't give you chills at least once or twice with a perfect combination of visuals, music and emotion, it's failed. Thankfully, Mary and the Witch's Flower does that a bunch of times. It's just a simply delightful film. A fun, family friendly adventure that dives deep into your heart and plans its own flower.