Tradition versus innovation. Accumulated wisdom versus new ideas. Over 30 years ago a fresh Japanese animation house with a name chosen to represent ‘new wind’ swept through the industry. Studio Ghibli has since become globally acclaimed and beloved, but that was 30 years ago.
Earwig and the Witch is a surprising feature film in more ways than one. It’s new. It’s (gasp) 3D CGI. It’s different in virtually every way. But is it good?
The film marks director Gorō Miyazaki’s third feature length movie for the studio. Such is the long shadow that father Hayao Miyazaki casts over Gorō’s films (the much maligned Tales From Earthsea and better received sophomore From Up On Poppy Hill were constantly compared to Miyazaki senior’s superior movies) that it is this third release that steps so defiantly into new directions, and the world of CGI for the first time in the studio’s history.
Except is it so new? Adapted from the posthumously released novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones (from whom Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki senior successfully adapted Howl’s Moving Castle), Earwig and the Witch contains many apparently familiar elements.
We have a young female protagonist who must prove herself in a world of magic, a wry talking cat (voiced with gleeful charisma by Dan Stevens), and a focus on hard labour to achieve the wonderous. But there the comparisons abruptly end.
Quite definitely set in the UK circa the 1990s, the young Earwig is everything that Ghibli characters aren’t. She’s loud, obnoxious (Taylor Henderson voicing the character with a verbal ‘harrumph’ at every turn), and quite happy getting everyone to do what she wants them to do.
Adopted from the orphanage against her will, the movie pits her into a Roald Dahl-esque battle of wits against her new would-be parents, the overbearing slave-driver Bella Yaga (Vanessa Marshall) and permanently broiling Mandrake (Richard E. Grant), ready to explode in rage if disturbed.
Even taking into account the CG, it is clear that stylistic decisions were made regarding the animation of the characters; faces are under expressive and hair is wax-like and stiff.
When strong emotion is required these features swing to the other extreme and become over-expressive, with mouths taking up a whole face or eyes screwed up to nothing.
Combined with the abrasive personality types and, in the English dub, distractingly mismatched mouth movements, the cast are unpleasant to witness despite the magical hijinks taking place around them.
Is Earwig and the Witch Worth Watching?
Interesting and satisfying ideas do bubble up throughout the movie. The Mandrake’s magical miasma allows him to lope through the walls of a house that already has confusingly shifting rooms, and when Earwig causes him to explode with fury the burning red circles that foreshadow his arrival make for tense viewing.
Similarly, the approach to crafting magic is gloriously mucky here. With a spellbook in hand and the right ingredients to be ground up, Earwig and the Witch suggests that magic is just one night of sweat and splatter away from anyone.
Earwig also boasts a rocking soundtrack that revolves around one constant 70s album rock style motif. Musically, this is very pleasing. A cassette tape discovered by Earwig might contain more about her abandoned past than just a good tune, and yet this is a separate plotline haphazardly picked up and thrown away at random intervals, invented for the movie and not present in the original text; the movie’s abrupt ending utterly undercutting any question of intrigue set up by Earwig’s abandonment as an infant at the start.
Earwig and the Witch struggles to land on anything other than surface-level as Earwig herself undergoes no journey at all. The movie is simply a reset of the status quo, Earwig having changed or learned very little by events.
No studio can follow the formula endlessly, but Earwig and the Witch’s charms, of which there are undoubtedly some ingredients, struggle to surface under the dirty pots and pans that litter Bella Yaga’s unkempt kitchen table.
Words by Mike Record