Earwig and the Witch
Studio Ghibli's long-awaited new movie can't quite summon up the beloved Japanese animation house's usual magic.
If you wanted to use Studio Ghibli's name as an adjective, it could mean many things, including beautiful, playful, moving, heartwarming, thoughtful and bittersweet. Thanks to the overwhelmingly delightful combination of these traits in the company's work to-date, everyone knows a Ghibli film when they see it, as has proven the case for almost four decades. But, seven years after When Marnie Was There, its last solo production — and five years since its French co-production The Red Turtle — the beloved Japanese animation house has released a movie that doesn't slide instantly and easily into its gorgeous and affecting catalogue. The studio's first film made solely using computer-generated 3D animation, Earwig and the Witch immediately stands out thanks to its plastic-looking visuals. And, despite the fact that it's about a determined young girl, features a witch, and even includes a talking cat and other helpful tiny critters, it never completely feels like a classic Ghibli film either.
Earwig and the Witch boasts plenty of other ingredients that link it to the studio's past. It's based on a novel by English author Diana Wynne Jones, who penned the book that Howl's Moving Castle was based on. It's directed by Gorō Miyazaki, who helmed fellow Ghibli films Tales from Earthsea and From Up on Poppy Hill, and happens to be the son of the great Hayao Miyazaki. Also, the elder Miyazaki initially planned the project, even if he didn't ultimately write the script or step behind the camera. On-screen, the eponymous Earwig (Kokoro Hirasawa) follows in the footsteps of Spirited Away's Chihiro and Kiki's Delivery Service's titular figure. The witch referred to in the film's name recalls Spirited Away's Yubaba, too, and the movie's food-fetching little demons bring My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away's susuwatari to mind as well. Indeed, despite eschewing hand-drawn animation for CGI, almost everything about Earwig and the Witch is designed to scream Ghibli — calculatingly so — but that isn't enough to give the movie the depth or heart that has become synonymous with the company's cinematic output.
Viewers first meet Earwig as a baby. After trying to shake off the dozen other witches chasing them along a highway, her mother (Sherina Munaf) leaves her on an orphanage's doorstep, promising to return after her never-explained troubles subside. Ten years later, Earwig still roams the facility's halls. She brags to her offsider Custard (Yusei Saito) that she knows how to get its staff and its residents to bend to her will — and whip up shepherd's pie on demand — and she actively doesn't want to be adopted by the couples who stop by looking to expand their families. But when Earwig is chosen by witch Bella Yaga (Shinobu Terajima) and sorcerer The Mandrake (Etsushi Toyokawa), she has no option but to relocate to their enchanted cottage. Bella Yaga doesn't want a daughter, however. Instead, she's after an assistant to cook, clean and crush rat bones for her spells. And so, seeing a chance to learn magic herself, Earwig isn't willing to acquiesce easily.
A by-the-numbers Ghibli movie is still better than many other films, especially of the family-friendly variety. Earwig and the Witch is average rather than awful, too, but there's no escaping that the picture is trying to do two competing things at once. Ticking off as many of the studio's recognisable traits as possible is one of the movie's clear aims. Trying to squeeze Ghibli's sensibilities into the broader anime mould is the other. Accordingly, even with so much of Earwig and the Witch drawing upon the company's own earlier work, the picture's pace, energy and heavy use of theme song 'Don't Disturb Me' seem inspired by recent non-Ghibli hits such as Your Name, Weathering With You and Ride Your Wave. It's an odd mix, as is the feeling that the studio is both treading water and chasing its competitors, rather than blazing forward and carving its own path.
Also doing Earwig and the Witch few favours is its thin narrative, which is as straightforward as it sounds, including in the simplistic message of acceptance that's geared towards its younger audience members. Indeed, this might be Ghibli's most child-oriented film yet — skewing firmly to one end of the all-ages spectrum, rather than layering in the texture and detail that has regaled the studio's works to adults as much as kids. Interesting plot points arise but go nowhere, for instance. A backstory involving a witchy rock group begs for more attention, as does Bella Yaga's business selling spells to townsfolk to stop rain and win hearts, and The Mandrake's secret but never sinister activities in his hidden den. There's no faulting Earwig and the Witch's fondness for talking cat Thomas (Gaku Hamada), who becomes Earwig's ally, but the movie frequently teases far more than it's willing to deliver in its 82-minute running time. It also comes to an end abruptly, making its storyline feel half-finished.
That said, when Earwig and the Witch does shine, Ghibli's usual magic starts to peek through. Viewers just have to look harder than normal to uncover the film's modest charms, rather than be gifted with a non-stop, free-flowing array of the studio's wonders. More vivid and hyperreal than the company's regular nature-inspired palette, the movie's colour choices prove a highlight. So do the short flirtations with darkness and weirdness, which all centre around The Mandrake, a character who could've used more screen time. Its central tune is a welcome earworm, and when the picture leans into its sense of humour, it's all the better for it. Perhaps those joys are harder to notice, though, because so much of watching Earwig and the Witch involves spotting how different it looks. The smooth, glossy animation couldn't sum up movie better, however, appearing as generic as almost everything in this slight, bright, likeable but rarely memorable addition to Studio Ghibli's filmography.