Review: Earwig and the Witch

Young Erica, born as “Earwig,” doesn’t live an enviable life by as any means—abandoned at the doorstep of an orphanage by her mother, she has little hope of ever being adopted. But Earwig lives life on her own terms, cajoling those around her to do her bidding, but also giving them warmth and love. However, a wrench (or ladle) is thrown into her plans when a demanding witch and a devilish and ill-tempered man do adopt her, and she becomes a virtual slave to the woman, doing arduous and mundane chores all day long while being magically guarded from escaping her new home. But it’ll take far more than spells and grumpy magic users to prevent the clever and bombastic Earwig from getting her way, and with her own use of magic, a cat familiar named Thomas, and the power of music, she’ll find a way to right her world again.

Earwig and the Witch, made available to stream on HBO Max just two days after it’s theatrical release and a month following its television premiere in Japan, enters a brave new world of film distribution, so perhaps this was the perfect opportunity for Goro Miyazaki, ever the dissenter, to bring something new into the Studio Ghibli fold of animated films. While Earwig features many of the usual Ghibli earmarks—a strong heroine, colorful visuals, and source material from a beloved author, the second Diana Wynne Jones novel that’s been adapted (joining Howl’s Moving Castle), it is also animated in 3DCG, a first for the studio’s animated features, which had once long-resisted the transition from traditional hand-drawn animation to computer imagery. Unfortunately, and predictably, the result is another red mark by the younger Miyazaki upon Ghibli’s otherwise grade-A record.

The story itself is the usual stuff of Ghibli—just modernized a bit. Earwig is reminiscent of another witch, Kiki— both girls are trying to find their places in the world, and are willing to do what it takes to get there. Earwig will also remind viewers of Nausicaa, as she’ll roll over anyone in her way to achiever her goals. But this little girl is more charming that it sounds, doing everything with intelligence and smile. Indeed, Earwig is a fine heroine, another addition to the wonderful group assembled and created by Studio Ghibli through the years, while her new guardians—Bella Yaga and Mandrake—are well-developed and distinct as well. The plot, too, is fine—small and self-contained. But there are severe structural problems and flaws that prevent the movie from ever taking off, so that when it lands at the end, the audience isn’t hit with the feelings of love and contentment that are a hallmark of Ghibli.

© 2020 NHK, NEP, Studio Ghibli

Most notable among the issues is the poor CG work. While Earwig is the studio’s first fully CGI film, the company has done considerable work of that style before with the television series, Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter, featuring computer graphics based on cel-shading. The leap to a fully realized 3DGI film, however, is too much for Miyazaki (who oversaw the work on Ronja). The characters are lifeless in their movements, lacking vitality, particularly punctuated through a musical number late in the film that is perhaps the lamest “rock scene” you’ll ever watch. Despite occasionally rich coloring, and some wonderful detailing, the backgrounds are also stiff and unengaging. It’s a chore to watch the film, which in visuals too closely resembles features released straight to Redbox. Even the cute little servants, another frequent companion in Studio Ghibli films, aren’t cute at all—they’re pale and hard to make out, a shame since it wouldn’t be hard to imagine a particular chick-demon joining the vast array of beloved Ghibli characters.

The music, too, is lacking. A score composed by Satoshi Takebe is mostly forgettable; his major sin, however, is shared with Goro Miyazaki, who wrote the lyrics for “Don’t Disturb Me,” an apparent 70’s rock song that’s too sugary for rock, an annoyance to the ears that’s worsened by terrible lyrics that no adult or child could embrace. Even Kacey Musgraves, the lead singer for the song and voice of Earwig’s absent mother, can’t save this wreck. She’s an odd selection for the role, too, not only because of her musical style but also for her not-quite-there British accent, which at least disappears when she sings.

Richard E. Grant was a perfect choice to voice Mandrake. © 2020 NHK, NEP, Studio Ghibli

But even with it’s shortcomings, even with English dub work that doesn’t quite match the flaps, the movie is a moderate watch because of an underlying sweetness in the characters and the little flourishes of Ghibli that make their way out here and there—that is until the ending. I imagine that Mandrake himself (played lovingly by the inimitable Richard E. Grant), a would-be-author, would empathize with writers who struggle with conclusions, but this is twice now that Miyazaki has clumsily finished a film. He took a strong opening 2/3 of Tales from Earthsea and let it devolve into a messy finale, and this time, he does the same by bringing together story elements too quickly and with too little closure, while doing something even more peculiar, creating a conclusion that isn’t one at all. Instead, the close of this story seems like the opening for a television series that will more fully explore the world of Earwig. Looking at the less-than-feature-film quality of this movie, that may indeed be a wise choice.

More disastrous, though, is the very end, the closing credits. Drawn in the traditional style of Ghibli films, it portrays Earwig’s life after the events of the film, and for once, the movie rises completely to the charm and loveliness of what one expects from the studio. Suddenly, the movie is as magical as it tries to be, the characters lovable and cute, and the family at its most compelling. It’s everything that Earwig and the Witch could have been—what it should have been.

In an interview promoting the film, Goro Miyazaki, when explaining why this movie would be in 3DCG, explained, “…if we don’t incorporate new things, then there’s probably no future for us.” An unfortunate truth lies within these words, ones that weren’t intended: Miyazaki and the new generation cannot match the mastery of the old. All they seem to be able to offer are “new things.” But if the new things aren’t masterful—when they aren’t even good—it begs the question: What future does Studio Ghibli have at all? If it looks and sounds like Earwig, the answer may be “none.”

Earwig and the Witch is now being shown in theaters and can be streamed through HBO Max.


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