REVIEW: Like Its Heroine, Earwig and the Witch Shows Promise — and Room to Grow

Kara Dennison @RubyCosmos

 

When Studio Ghibli united with English novelist Diana Wynne Jones in 2004 for Howl’s Moving Castle, it seemed like a match made in heaven. Jones’s mix of fairy tale storytelling and rock-solid worldbuilding blended well with Ghibli’s world-famous visuals and breezy, nostalgic style. The two fronts collided again this year for Earwig and the Witch, as Goro Miyazaki adapted Jones’s posthumous final novel into the studio’s first full-length 3DCG feature.

 

There was a lot on the table for Earwig, as Studio Ghibli threw quite a bit of the new and different into this particular production. The junior Miyazaki opted for computer animation, having previously tackled it in the TV series Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter. And the story stars a heroine who’s much more interested in having her way than saving the day. But how does it all hold up, out in the world as a notable Studio Ghibli production?

 

It’s fine.

 

Earwig regards the record and tape bearing her name. Image courtesy GKIDS

Image via GKIDS

 

The animation is fine, the pacing is fine, the mood is fine. The story is better than fine, though the ending leaves something to be desired (and in fairness, there is a reason for this). Had this come from almost any studio besides Ghibli, it would hit very differently. But in spite of its entertainment value and killer main track, it lacks that bit of wonder that we’ve come to expect from the studio, regardless of the director or the medium.

 

It feels like there’s a lot of greatness lurking under the surface for Earwig. Much like its heroine, a young girl blissfully unaware of her magical lineage, there’s a lot this movie could be. It’s an entertaining watch, but it’s also an exercise in missed opportunities.

 

The Story

Earwig is eager to help. Image courtesy GKIDS

Image via GKIDS

 

Earwig and the Witch starts high-octane: a mysterious woman with magic powers races to escape a pursuer, leaving a child at the door of an orphanage. The child, named Earwig, is found with a cassette bearing the same name, and a note full of talk of witches. Ten years later, young Erica Wigg is the darling of the orphanage — a position she maintains with flattery, (mostly) victimless lies, and being mostly a pretty decent kid. Much like earwigs in old wives’ tales, she has a way of getting into your head.

 

But her rule is cut short when she’s adopted, bundled home by the witch Bella Yaga and her housemate, the gangly and demonic-looking Mandrake. Bella Yaga is in search of an extra pair of hands to help with her business: middle-class suburban witchery. Erica tries to work her magic, but her new “family” is uninterested, with Bella Yaga keeping her busy with menial chores and the Mandrake hiding himself away except at mealtimes.

 

Fortunately for Erica, she’s also now in possession of that cassette left with her as a child. As she burrows more and more into the workings of the house, she learns how to work magic herself… and, late in the game, about the truth behind her name.

 

Sadly, the story feels unfinished — but that’s because it sort of is. The original book ends with a quick epilogue, which may mean that Jones knew she wouldn’t be able to finish it and wanted to put some sort of cap on things. This means we’re left with a lot to infer, and a lot of questions left unanswered.

 

Fortunately, younger viewers will likely feel right at home with the story, and not feel especially put out with the lack of intricate tie-ups. Earwig is a fun and engaging character with a sort of Pippi Longstocking vibe, and if you’re not overly concerned with the overarching story, her antics carry the action.

 

The Animation

A photo from the past. Image courtesy GKIDS

Image via GKIDS

 

The collision of 3DCG animation and anime is a consistently tetchy one, and that’s understandable. As more and more animation studios move to predominantly (or even exclusively) CG animation, the opportunity to watch more traditional 2D animation dwindles. And that goes double for Studio Ghibli, a company that trades on soft nostalgia. Directors like Takashi Yamazaki are showing more and more that CG and anime can coexist, and that there are even some titles that benefit from that CG style. Whether Earwig and the Witch is one of those titles, though, is debatable.

 

As with much of the film, the animation is fine. It’s largely nice to look at, with perhaps one or two odd choices, and there are even moments that look especially good in CG. (The Mandrake’s silent tantrums in particular look pretty great.) But — and it’s early days, so this is understandable — it’s clear that what exactly “CG Ghibli” is hasn’t been hashed out yet. There’s an effort to replicate the existing Ghibli aesthetic with an extra dimension, and it succeeds somewhat. But with a new medium, there need to be new techniques. And it’s clear that’s going to take some time to figure out.

 

The Localization

The Mandrake goes off on one. Image courtesy GKIDS

Image via GKIDS

 

All else aside, one of the universe’s great constants is that Studio Ghibli localizations will be really good. That’s true for Earwig and the Witch as well, and digging into the dub was the same joy it always is for a Ghibli film.

 

Taylor Paige Henderson threads the needle of the very difficult role of Earwig: precocious and manipulative, but still likable and ultimately (whether she intends it or not) doing a greater good. Voice actress Vanessa Marshall (often heard as Wonder Woman in recent DC animations) is a great Bella Yaga, and singer Kacey Musgraves belts out a lovely English-language take on the film’s central tune “Don’t Disturb Me.”

 

Richard E. Grant is an obvious and inspired choice for the Mandrake. Sadly, the character’s reclusive and tight-lipped nature means we don’t get to hear much of him, but he makes the most of what scenes he’s got. Stealing the show is Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley of Downton Abbey) as Earwig’s new friend Thomas, Bella Yaga’s black cat familiar. His easy, cheerful performance is a highlight of the film.

 

Earwig and the Witch Poster. Image courtesy GKIDS

Image via GKIDS

 

The thing to remember about Earwig and the Witch is that Studio Ghibli’s “all right” is pretty much any other studio’s “amazing.” Our expectations of Ghibli in this time of change — as new directors explore new media — are going to be shaken up a bit. The film has a lot of missed opportunities, a lot of chances to lean into its underlying rock aesthetic, or just to get daring with its visuals and storytelling. It’s possible that “safe” was the best way to go, in that case.

 

Earwig leaves several things to be desired, both in terms of the story itself and the audience experience. Kids will find it fun and exciting; older viewers may be left somewhat cold if they’re expecting the magic of Ghibli’s past. But this signals not so much the death of that magic as it does a chance for it to grow in new places. Because Earwig and the Witch does show promise — promise that, hopefully, will be delivered on in the new era of Studio Ghibli.

 

Earwig and the Witch is now available on HBO Max, and comes out on Blu-ray and DVD on April 6.

 

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