CAST (ENGLISH VERSION): Taylor Paige Henderson, Vanessa Marshall, Richard E. Grant, Dan Stevens, Kacey Musgraves, JB Blanc
CAST (JAPANESE VERSION): Kokoro Hirasawa, Shinobu Terajima, Etsushi Toyokawa, Gaku Hamada, Sherina Munafu, Yūji Ueda
RUNNING TIME: 82 mins
BASICALLY…: A young orphan (Henderson/Hirasawa) is taken in by a mysterious witch (Marshall/Terajima) and wizard (Grant/Toyokawa)…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
It’s been such a topsy-turvy year-and-a-half, from the world pressing pause because of a lethal virus to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle departing the Royal Family. However, perhaps one of the most opposite things yet to come out of the film world (aside from, y’know, the main stuff) is that we’ve had two high-profile Japanese anime releases in the same week, one of them being Earwig and the Witch by the legendary animation powerhouse that is Studio Ghibli, and between the two I can safely say without a single shred of doubt in my body that the Studio Ghibli movie is by far the worst one.
It isn’t just that Earwig and the Witch, being the studio’s first fully-CG animated film, is woefully misguided from a visual perspective (though that definitely doesn’t help), but it is one of the most charmless, directionless and least engaging stories that Ghibli has yet put out. It’s a movie so shockingly underwhelming for a major animation giant such as Studio Ghibli – who, of course, have blessed with vast epics from Spirited Away to Princess Mononoke – that it’s hard to put into words how much they screwed up with this flimsy outing.
Based on the children’s book by Diana Wynne Jones – whose work was previously adapted by Studio Ghibli into Howl’s Moving Castle – the film is about a young girl named Earwig (voiced by Taylor Paige Henderson in the English dub), who as a baby is placed in an orphanage by her witch mother (Kacey Musgraves) after she apparently goes on the run from a horde of witches (one of the many plot points in this movie which is never explained). Earwig is re-christened Erica Wigg by the orphanage – yet it later acquires an orphan who goes by the name of Custard, and they decide to do absolutely nothing about that even weirder name for a child – and some years later, “Erica” is suddenly adopted by a strange couple known as Bella Yaga (Vanessa Marshall) and the Mandrake (Richard E. Grant). Upon arrival at their small cottage, Bella Yaga informs Erica that she is a witch, and that the young girl was adopted to be an extra pair of hands in putting together some spells for her community, while the Mandrake simply sulks away in other parts of the house, not wanting to be disturbed. Frustrated by her new living conditions – even though she is fed, clothed, and given both a bedroom and her own bathroom – Erica soon decides that she wants to learn magic herself so that her new adoptive guardians can do whatever she wants
Sounds like a harmless enough set-up for a much more imaginative, even magical story, right? Well, what if I told you that everything I just described is pretty much the entire movie, from beginning to end? That’s how rarely things happen in this movie, which is almost entirely comprised of stake-less, inconsequential scenes of this obnoxious and kind of bratty kid being forced to grind potion ingredients, collect thistles from the garden, and occasionally converse with a talking cat that has the voice of a campy Dan Stevens. There is no real story in this movie, and no growth or development for any of these characters; the titular kid starts the movie as a brat, and ends the movie as a brat, with zero indication that she’s changed at all as a person (if anything, she becomes even more intolerable). Even more frustratingly, as soon as it seems that the real plot is finally about to kick in, after what seems like an over-extended first act, the end credits start rolling. It is a complete barebones of a script that it’s almost laughable next to the sheer quality of movies Studio Ghibli has been putting out, and I know that this is based on a book intended for young readers, but in an adaptation of light material such as this, there needs to be way more fleshing out of certain things in order to create a palatable three-act structure, with characters that need enough dimensions to them in order to make them interesting for audiences to follow. Earwig and the Witch really doesn’t have any of that, and that’s saying something given that there have been quite a few Studio Ghibli movies in the past where nothing much happens for much of the running time, but they still had some level of charm and inventiveness to them, whereas this just feels incredibly lazy in almost every creative department.
That is also true for the rather lifeless CG animation in this film, which I hope is something that Studio Ghibli does not continue on with for future projects because it looks and feels so very wrong. The overall designs from the characters to the buildings were clearly hand-drawn and then transformed into 3D computer-generated models, but it doesn’t work because it makes everything seem so robotic and manufactured, whereas there is a gentle simplicity to how this particular style flows when it’s traditionally animated. In a CG format, though, a movie like Earwig and the Witch can be relatively creepy to watch, since it’s far easier to spot some of the inaccuracies in this style and even the synchronisation of the English dub, because in a 2D anime movie you can easily get away with the English voices not entirely syncing up with the mouths on-screen, but with this animation which gives the faces an extra layer of movement that’s designed to look a bit more realistic, it’s extremely jarring when characters appear to be saying one thing, but will actually be speaking something very different. It was, needless to say, a pretty poor stylistic choice to make this CGI feature, seeing how it immediately takes away the one saving grace for even the weaker Studio Ghibli films, where the characters and stories may be lacking but at least it’s got some beautiful animation; you really cannot say the same with this one.
It really is hard to believe that this film, with the poor quality of animation and storytelling that it has, not only comes from an animation titan like Studio Ghibli, but is also directed by Gorô Miyazaki, the son of Ghibli maestro Hayao Miyazaki himself and who has made a handful of lesser-regarded films for the studio like Tales from Earthsea and From Up On Poppy Hill, both of which aren’t among the better Ghibli films but match the studio’s overall quality far more than Earwig and the Witch does. It doesn’t just fail as a new stylistic direction for the studio, but as a compelling story for audiences of all ages it is completely underwhelming, failing to give off any reason as to why we should care about this nothing of a plot with characters who are too ill-defined and obnoxious to root for. Even children are likely to be bored senseless by this film, which doesn’t even deliver on the magic it promises by introducing the likes of witches and submissive demons into this world, doing absolutely nothing with them while twiddling its thumbs until the abrupt start of the end credits.
If there is a lesson to be learned from Earwig and the Witch, though, it’s that even Studio Ghibli is capable of delivering a complete dud every now and then.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Earwig and the Witch is perhaps Studio Ghibli’s worst film, not just from a stylistic standpoint which replaces the studio’s trademark gorgeous 2D animation with lifeless and relatively creepy CG designs, but with its inconsequential and stake-free storytelling and obnoxious characters it’s hard to even care about what and who you’re watching.