Back in the 1970s, long before Harry Potter came along, it was the likes of Dianna Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series and Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising that enthralled children with stories of magic and wizarding schools. Mary Stewart’s Little Broomstick sits firmly in that genre but, sadly, while Chrestomanci and The Dark Is Rising are still relatively well-known, Mary Stewart’s wonderful tale has somehow dropped off the radar. Hopefully Studio Ponoc’s delightful new animated adaptation will remedy that.
Published in 1971, The Little Broomstick was memorable both for its feisty heroine and beautiful language. While sweeping up leaves with a small broom, Mary accidentally smears the broom in the juice of a fly-by-night flower. Immediately, the little broomstick leaps to life and Mary and the cat Tib are transported to Endor school of witchcraft. Like many tales from this era, the book is quite dark and adult in places – at Endor spells are used to create mischief and mayhem!
Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s adaptation is, however, much warmer with lush visuals and heartfelt storytelling. That’s not that surprising from the man who honed his craft as a key animator at Studio Ghibli. In fact, fans will find many nods here to films such as Howl’s Moving Castle in both character design and atmosphere.
The tale itself is set firmly in period and, when paired with traditional cell animation, the result is a new film that feels like a lost classic. Perhaps because we’ve all become so used to children’s films that are overwhelming and frenetic, Mary And The Witch’s Flower feels like a breath of fresh air. It’s tempting to see this gentle pace as something that only youngsters will appreciate but the success of films like Spirited Away, and (recently) Paddington proves that there are plenty of people who appreciate a well-told tale that doesn’t have you leaving the cinema with your ears ringing. It also – like the best films – has an important message. While many films and books these days present us with heroes and heroines who are born special, Mary is an ordinary girl whose ‘magic’ is her determination to do the right thing – a theme that seems especially apt in these challenging times.