The first feature production of the new Japanese animation house Studio Ponoc -- founded by veterans of Hayao Miyazaki's celebrated Studio Ghibli in the wake of Miyazaki's supposed retirement -- Mary and the Witch's Flower is a film modest in temperament but ambitious in effect. It may not quite match the best of the Ghibli classics, which gathered complexity and resonance as they went along: a child's coming of age could transform into a disturbing metaphysical adventure; a classic legend could become a nuanced meditation on environment and identity. But what Mary and the Witch's Flower lacks in dimensionality, it makes up for in wonderment.
The story follows Mary (voiced in this English version by Ruby Barnhill), a young girl whisked away to a vast castle in the clouds called Endor College, a school for witches and warlocks where novices learn to cast spells and pilot brooms. Yes, it sounds Harry Potter-ish: It's not long before Mary discovers that she is destined for great things.
Endor College is run by domineering headmistress Madam Mumblechook (Kate Winslet) and the oddball Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent). It's a realm of eerie beauty -- alternating between steampunk bustle and space-age grandeur, a place of water-holograms and tornadoes of light, where fish sentries buzz about and people are carried on puffs of clouds. Yonebayashi fills his frame with exploding colors and dazzling details; it's at times so gorgeous and intricate that you might not know where to look. Mary and the Witch's Flower and its eye-popping cavalcade of creations and colors speak not to the shock and awe of technology but to the can-do magic of human achievement.