After nearly five years without a new feature film, Studio Ghibli’s Earwig and the Witch is the long-awaited return of one of Japan’s most legendary production houses. Studio Ghibli films are rare treats that convey a certain charm which no other animation studio has been able to capture. Just as Pixar, Dreamworks, and even Illumination all have their own unique styles, Ghibli has a wholesome, family-friendly reputation that isn’t afraid to push boundaries or present challenging ideas to kids and parents alike. Studio Ghibli films are distinct even in the ever-growing market of anime feature films.
Earwig and the Witch is a departure for the studio in many ways. The film stands as being Ghibli’s first feature film composed entirely by CG with founder Hayao Miyazaki’s son Goro taking the helm. Goro Miyazaki hasn’t exactly had a sterling reputation within the company and has had numerous sour spots with dear old dad. Probably most concerning all of was the original release plan of the film, opting to eschew theaters in Japan and instead air on the country’s NHK General TV network.
You could chalk this up Covid-19 causing some hesitation to release it to theaters, but that’s immediately thrown out the window when Demon Slayer: Infinity Train released in October right in the midst of the pandemic and went on to become the highest-grossing film of all time in Japan, surpassing Ghibli’s own Spirited Away. It comes across as if Studio Ghibli had a lack of confidence in the film: sadly, it’s not hard to see why it would be concerned about the final product.
Earwig and the Witch
Director: Goro Miyazaki
Release Date: February 3, 2021 (Limited release), February 5, 2021 (HBO Max)
Earwig (Taylor Paige Henderson/Kokoro Hirosawa) is an orphan who doesn’t ever want to be adopted. She lives a pretty relaxing life at her orphanage and is able to get most of the other children to do whatever she says. Despite her best intentions, however, she’s adopted by a woman named Bella Yaga (Vanessa Marshall/Shinobu Terajima), who almost immediately reveals herself as a witch to Earwig. She adopted Earwig as an assistant and keeps her locked inside her house to help craft spells for clients. As Earwig adjusts to her new life, she tries to learn magic from Bella Yaga and follow the one rule that Bella Yaga tells her upon arrival: don’t disturb the owner of the house, the Mandrake (Richard E. Grant/Etsushi Toyokawa).
The biggest question I had going into Earwig and the Witch was seeing just how well Studio Ghibli’s signature animation style was able to be preserved from 2D to 3D. For the most part, it does the job fine enough. Characters still move around as you would expect from a Ghibli film with super-expressive faces, hair flourishes, and a certain emphasis on the more magical elements in the plot. While the movie isn’t quite as visually spectacular as anything that Pixar put out in the past five years (and Miyazaki never wanted to film to be as ultra-detailed as Western CG animation), it gets the job done. Where issues start to crop up is when it comes to localization.
I watched both the subtitled and dubbed versions of the film and by a mile, if you have a choice between the two, watch the subtitled version with the original Japanese audio. It’s not that the English performances are bad: Richard E. Grant, in particular, is a standout in the film’s small cast, but the lip-synching isn’t done that well. I don’t blame the localizers for this issue, but rather the inherent difficulty to lip-sync 3D models with naturally expressive faces. It makes all of the inconsistencies stand out even more while 2D animation allows for a lot more wiggle room with matching dialogue to animation.
To be fair to the film, this isn’t exactly a movie that’s going to be defined by its plot. 90% of the film takes place in the Mandrake’s house and even then, most of the film is in a dingy and ugly room where Bella Yaga makes her potions. The film is more about the moments where Earwig attempts to be mischievous and play pranks on Bella Yaga and there’s hardly an overarching story. That’s fine enough, but the movie never really attempts to do anything other than watch Earwig make potions. Whenever you think that there is meant to be something more at play here, the film never goes in that direction, instead focused on trying to keep its affairs as small as possible.
Take Earwig herself. In the opening scene, it’s revealed that Earwig is the daughter of a witch and her mother is being pursued by a group of witches. Earwig is unaware of this for the entirety of the narrative and it plays no part in any of the events. One would think that her adoption by Bella Yaga might be some way to tie into some larger plot about Earwig and her magical lineage, except it doesn’t. You would also think it plays into how Bella Yaga and the Mandrake know her mother… and yet it doesn’t. By the ending of the film, no one ever brings it up and it just feels like an unnecessary detail.
In fact, there are a lot of unnecessary details in Earwig and the Witch that do not amount to anything. Earwig’s lineage is one, but you also have the band that her mother was originally a part of with Bella Yaga and the Mandrake. It’s built up throughout the movie through a pretty solid original song, “Don’t Disturb Me,” but it’s only brought into the overall plot at the very end of the film. Then there are the witches that are chasing after her mom, Earwig’s desire to learn magic, and the history of the magical being’s band. None of it really matters and the ending steamrolls pasts any explanation we should have received.
Without going into spoiler territory, the film frankly feels incomplete. I was curious to see that Earwig and the Witch runs at just under 90 minutes and by the time I was an hour into the film, I couldn’t figure out what the end game was. In truth, there is no endgame here and the film truncates an entire act’s worth of plot into narration over the course of two, maybe three minutes. Never before have I seen a movie so quickly rush to wrap things up and leave me trying to piece together why it had to end this way.
A poor ending can leave audiences with a sour taste in their mouth and even after experiencing its underwhelming ending, the lead-up to the… I guess you can call it a climax, worked. We saw plenty of spells being cast, unique environments that weren’t just Bella Yaga’s room, and a flashback sequence that was just begging to be explored more than it was. The film is adapted from an English book of the same name and while I haven’t read it, these dangling threads are hopefully answered in the book.
There are some clever ideas on display here, like Bella Yaga’s spells all being absolutely meaningless but she just sells them to wealthy clients. I like the film’s English setting and its love of English culture, especially in its cuisine. I’m not the biggest fan of Shepherd’s Pie, but damn does Ghibli make delicious-looking food in all of its films. I even like how the Mandrake’s house functions like a Tardis with numerous rooms of different shapes and sizes throughout, turning what should be a quiet English home into a complicated magical palace.
Sadly, those elements are all featured in a very flawed, very uneven product. While Earwig and the Witch isn’t as bad as Goro Miyazaki’s other films, it’s not really all that remarkable either. It’s a weird little experiment, one that Goro admitted was primarily handled by new staffers since he was the only one that knew how to work with CG animation. To make matters worse, most of this new staff were people who had never really done CG animation on this scale before, making it not out of the realm of possibility that the ending was as rushed as it was because they either ran out of time or money.
Goro was pretty much abandoned by the more senior staff to create this film and it really does show from the lack of cohesion and direction. The making of this film is probably going to be fascinating to read about a few years from now, at least. Given its modest debut and the middling reception so far, it’s almost likely going to be their last.
From its jumbled mess of a plot to its underwhelming animation, I can’t say this was a great film for Ghibli to reappear with and is probably going to be one of Ghibli’s weaker entries. Granted, in a library that’s filled with some of the best-animated films of all time, that might not mean much. However you slice it, a middling film is still a middling film, and that’s just what Earwig and the Witch is.