Magic flows freely if not infinitely in “Mary and the Witch’s Flower,” an effortless animated charmer from the gifted Japanese director and Studio Ghibli veteran Hiromasa Yonebayashi.
Adapted by Yonebayashi and Riko Sakaguchi from Mary Stewart’s 1971 children’s novel, “The Little Broomstick,” the movie ushers us into an enchanted realm where water can dance, brooms and carpets take flight, and woodland critters transform into fantastical beings.
The greatest source of all this magic is the flower of the title, a glowing violet weed called a “fly-by-night,” which blooms only once every seven years and is coveted by witches and wizards for its extraordinary powers. As luck would have it, the flower falls into the hands of Mary Smith (voiced by Ruby Barnhill in the English-dubbed version opening in North American theaters), who is no witch at all but rather a rosy-cheeked young girl with an unruly mop of red hair and an appealing blend of spunk and sweetness.
That makes her a natural choice of heroine for Yonebayashi, who previously directed “The Secret World of Arrietty” (2012) and “When Marnie Was There” (2015) for Studio Ghibli, the venerable Japanese animation house where plucky female protagonists have long ruled the roost. That sensibility holds true in “Mary and the Witch’s Flower,” even if it isn’t technically a Ghibli production. Rather, it’s the first feature from the fledgling Studio Ponoc, which was founded in 2015 by several Ghibli alumni amid (happily premature) speculation that the company would be shutting down its feature-film production.
If Yonebayashi’s movie doesn’t have the visual richness and imaginative depth of Ghibli masterpieces like Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away,” its emotional warmth and wondrously inviting hand-drawn imagery carry on that company’s proud tradition. In the opening minutes you feel immediately transported and borne aloft, even if the meaning of the images proves elusive: A fire rages, a chase ensues and a young witch flies off into the night with some very precious cargo.
Sometime later, we catch up with Mary after she’s moved into the cottage of her kind great-aunt Charlotte (Lynda Baron). Her parents are due to join them eventually, but until then, Mary is free to explore the surrounding countryside, where she befriends a small black cat named Tib and, after a fashion, a local boy named Peter (Louis Ashbourne Serkis). Those magical flowers come into play, as does a long-dormant broomstick that suddenly sends Mary soaring into the heavens and deposits her on a landscape somewhere in the clouds.
If the stunning ethereal vistas bring “Avatar’s” Pandora briefly to mind, then Endor College, the elite school of witchcraft that Mary stumbles upon, is surely meant to remind you of Hogwarts. But while Harry Potter and friends would thrill to some of the state-of-the-art campus perks (the gym is especially to die for), the school’s imperious headmistress, Madam Mumblechook (Kate Winslet), is decidedly no Albus Dumbledore. Along with her high-handed colleague Doctor Dee (unmistakably voiced by Jim Broadbent), the headmistress welcomes the new girl at first, convinced that Mary could be the most talented witch of her generation.
That early misunderstanding gives rise to several intricately nestled intrigues involving a purloined spellbook, a sudden kidnapping and some sinister experiments involving caged animals. (Frankly, the cruelest such experiments are the ones taking place in Endor’s dining hall, as we see in one deliciously grotesque throwaway detail.) The narrative twists, absorbing but far from surprising, fit comfortably in the palm of your hand, as do the inevitable lessons Mary must learn about friendship, loyalty and courage.
All this might have seemed relatively pro forma in the hands of less skilled animators. But even in the movie’s most straightforward moments — some gentle comedy involving Mary and her great-aunt’s housekeeper, or a visual joke in which a cat seems to change color — the delicate interplay of soft textures and painterly hues pulls you deeply into this story’s world. With grace, wit and unforced wisdom, Yonebayashi’s movie sweeps you up and then gently sets you down, back into a world that seems more capable of magic than it did before.
‘Mary and the Witch’s Flower’
Rating: PG, for some action and thematic elements
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Playing: AMC, Cinemark, Regal and other theaters, Jan. 18 only; Aero Theatre, Santa Monica, Jan. 19-21