It is easy, and usually ignorant as hell, for the Western critic to declare of any fantasy-tinged anime feature from Japan, "why, that reminds me of Studio Ghibli!", but in the case of Mary and the Witch's Flower, that resemblance is less a matter of cultural bias than of distinct, definite intent. This is, in a very real way, Studio Ponoc's attempt to step into the gulf created in the international film ecosystem when Studio Ghibli apparently shut down following the 2014 release of When Marnie Was There. Indeed, Studio Ponoc's very existence is as an attempt to re-create Studio Ghibli: it was founded by Ghibli producer Nishimura Yoshiaki, much of its animation staff was hired over by Ghibli, and the very name "Ponoc" is the Serbo-Croatian word for "midnight", meant to imply the beginning of a new day (very much as "Ghibli" was named for a north African wind, with the suggestion of blowing out the old ways and blowing in the new guard). With Studio Ghibli proper having lately re-formed to support Miyazaki Hayao's most recent un-retirement, it remains to be seen how much life Studio Ponoc has in it, but this much is easy to say: if we are to have Studio Ghibli knock-offs in the world, we are miraculously blessed for any of them to be this good at capturing the essence of what made that studio's work so bright and magical.

Mary and the Witch's Flower is the third feature directed by Yonebayashi Hiromasa, himself a Ghibli veteran, having handled 2010's The Secret World of Arrietty as well as When Marnie Was There. He was, in that capacity, one of the several people groomed to take the reigns of the studio from the aging Miyazaki and Takahata Isao, and one of only two who actually ended up directing more than one film there (the other was Miyazaki's son Goro, and neither of his were terribly interesting). It's slightly maddening to know that Yonebayashi had a film like this in him: Arrietty and Marnie are both likeable and charming but Mary and the Witch's Flower blows both of them out of the water, and one might idly wonder if Ghibli could have stayed around in a more stable form if a film like this had come out from the actual studio, rather than this near-clone.

The film is taken from one of the late works by Mary Stewart, who made her name writing suspense novels before switching to history-minded philosophical fantasies in the 1970s, and who turned out a trio of children's novels around the same time. Mary is based on one of these, 1971's The Little Broomstick, I do not know how closely; the script by Yonebayashi and Sakaguchi Riko (also of Ghibli's superb The Tale of the Princess Kaguya) seems to be very much a part of 21st Century trends in children's fantasy, though perhaps Stewart was merely forward looking. The cleaned-up version of the story is that Mary (Sugisaki Hana in the original Japanese version, Ruby Barnhill in the English dub), feeling more than a little isolated in the country where she has been sent in advance of her parents, stumbles across a peculiar blue flower in the woods. A little bit later, she stumbles across an apparently sapient broomstick, and when she frees it, it flies her to Endor College for Witches, a very Harry Potter-ish magical space of fanciful professors, elaborately-designed interiors, and all the marvels of the most cozy sort of British fantasy. Here, the headmistress Madame Mumblechook (Amami Yuki/Kate Winslet) and head magical chemistry researcher Doctor Dee (Kohinata Fumiyo/Jim Broadbent) determine that Mary's amazing, seemingly intuitive grasp of the most amazing high-level magic techniques mean that she must surely be a Chosen One.

So far, so reductive, though one of the greatest pleasures of Mary, to me, is how it turns all that on its head: Mary knows damn well that the flower contains all of her power, and so instead of being delighted to be selected as the Specialest Snowflake, like so many heroes of children's and YA literature, she's immediately paranoid at being found out. Also, we figure out almost immediately, and Mary isn't far behind, that Mumblechook and Dee are up to something dreadful, and the splendors of Endor College are simply a mask for the cruel, exploitative abuse of an elite class that views non-magic beings as barely any kind of life form at all. And I will not lie, all Mary had to do to get me at least somewhat on its good side was so cheerfully and unfussily raise this magnificent "fuck you" to all the ever-more tedious tropes of "chosen one" fantasy stories.

But this is by no means the only good thing about the film; not even the best thing, really. Mary and the Witch's Flower is a terrific work of character animation, world-building, and adventure filmmaking, 102 minutes of visual bliss of a sort that I hadn't even realised we haven't gotten in ages. Nobody who has seen all of Studio Ghibli's greatest hits can pretend like any thing here is new: the list of seemingly obvious aesthetic, emotional, and narrative touchstones for the film includes a good half of Miyazaki's filmography, with Howl's Moving Castle and Spirited Away standing out as the most tangible inspirations (ironically, one Miyazaki film that I don't see in here at all is Ghibli's own story of a young witch, Kiki's Delivery Service). That being said, there is a gulf between merely doing something that has been done before, and doing that thing extremely well, and Mary does it sublimely: yes, it's doing the Spirited Away thing, but it's doing it better than any other film has in the intervening 16 years since Spirited Away.

Simply put, this is a luxuriant movie. It indulges in richly saturated colors and busily-designed spaces: not just the elaborate rooms and dungeons of Endor College, but also the parlor of Mary's great aunt Charlotte (Otake Shinobu/Lynda Baron), or the lush fields and forests around Charlotte's home. Every location is visually opulent, with clean, bright backgrounds that take full advantage of digital painting technology, as do the bold colors of the characters (Mary's red hair is a plot point and one of the most persistent visual motifs in the film), and the painterly lighting effects. It is not at all a handmade film; and this does cost it a certain warmth and delicacy. But like Spirited Away, like Howl's Moving Castle, or like Princess Mononoke, the eye-popping richness of the artwork is pleasurable and seductive in ways that compensate for a certain lack of warmth. The film's opening action sequence, a riot of moving objects, bright colors, racing backgrounds, and an untethered, flying camera, is one of the most all-around impressive sequences of animation I've seen in years.

To go along with these plush colors, lighting, and effects, the film boasts some of the very best character animation of the 2010s; the very best within its specific Disney-influenced tradition, I should say, but it's a good and noble tradition, one that Japanese animators haven't abandoned even as it grows increasingly hard to find it in the CG-addled animation of America, or the stylized cartooning of Europe. Now, much of Japanese animation suffers mildly from characters that aren't up to the complexity, depth, and beauty of the backgrounds; Mary and the Witch's Flower is a striking exception that that tendency. Mary herself is a spectacularly expressive figure, with a full gamut of emotions from boredom to annoyance to confusion to awe to fear to anger (in approximately that order) playing out in her face, body language - and hair! - all in strictly naturalistic, subtle moves. Nobody else in the film is animated with such care and grace (though Charlotte comes close in a couple of scenes), though nobody else needs to be; it's Mary's story, and Mary provides to be a singularly appealing figure to accompany on her journey.

The shortcomings are all clear: this is a safe, audience-pleasing movie, designed to hone in on the international market that so ravenously devoured Miyazaki's lightly sci-fi influenced fantasies for all those years. The strengths are also clear: this is the best version of that safe, audience-pleasing movie that has been directed by anybody who wasn't Miyazaki. Yonebayashi has more than proven himself: this is a flawlessly-paced movie, slowing down to appreciate the splendor of its world and speeding up to keep its plot urgent and tense; it has a clean, classical emotional tenor that makes the light melancholy of Marnie seem like a dry run. And Studio Ponoc has proven itself, as well: this is a beautifully accomplished work of animation made with palpable love, and I pray the studio and the director both stick around to build off of this inordinately strong foundation.