REVIEW: Earwig and the Witch (2020)

Friday, February the 5th, HBO Max released Studio Ghibli’s newest film, Earwig and the Witch. This is the studio’s first CGI animated movie and second Diana Wynne Jones adaptation after 2004’s Howl’s Moving Castle. Earwig and the Witch is directed by Gorô Miyazaki, son of animation giant Hayao Miyazaki. The film stars Taylor Henderson, Richard E. Grant, Vanessa Marshall, Kacey Musgraves, and Dan Stevens. The Studio Ghibli brand on a film carries high expectations, and being the son of their most famous director likely puts Gorô in an uncomfortable spot. Online, the film’s reception has been lukewarm, with lots of focus on the movie’s foray into computer graphics and an unsatisfying ending. It has a 31% on Rottentomatoes, and its user score on IMDb has been hovering around a 5. However, I was still looking forward to the film. The colorful poster, which shows Earwig fronting a rock band, caught my eye, and I’m not as big a fan of the studio’s overall output as some. I personally didn’t care for Ponyo or The Secret World of Arrietty and wondered if this film could really be that bad by comparison. Let’s have a look. 

Based on a novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones, Earwig and the Witch’s opening scene features a red-haired witch riding a bike to a local orphanage. There, she leaves baby Earwig with a note explaining that she’s a witch and will return for the child once she’s gotten rid of the other witches chasing her. The matron is taken in by the adorable baby but names her Erica Wig, saying Earwig is a ridiculous name for a baby. A few years pass, and Earwig has won the hearts of the orphanage caretakers and the other children. She isn’t interested in getting adopted because she can control everyone in the orphanage and get her way all the time. She even tells her best friend Custard he shouldn’t try to get adopted so they can stay together. However, Earwig quickly realizes that this is one situation she can’t control when she gets adopted by a witch and a mandrake. Things worsen when she gets to their house and learns that she’s been adopted specifically to perform household chores and gather supplies for the Witch. She slowly pieces together their past and relationship to a tape left at the orphanage for her.

Earwig and the Witch

I think it’s best to address the elephant in the room first: the animation in this movie is fine. I like the character designs, and the film displays an abundance of vibrant colors. However, I can’t really defend it against those who don’t like this aesthetic as much as the classic, lush hand-drawn animation that put Ghibli on the map. I would agree wholeheartedly; those movies are better looking. Visually, I’d pick Howl’s Moving Castle or Princess Mononoke over Earwig and the Witch any day. And this animation is by no means on the level of Disney, Pixar, or DreamWorks. The textures aren’t there yet, and honestly, these character designs look like hand-drawn character designs. They are great character designs, particularly Bella Yaga the Witch and the Mandrake. But visually, she reminds me of the studio’s other witches, who have always been traditionally animated. Her wild hair and long, crooked nose just don’t look right in 3D. I admire them for trying something different; I’m just not sure why they would bother when it’s so far behind the industry standard; and why this film in particular? This movie is 82 minutes long and takes place almost entirely inside one setting, the Witch’s house. There are beautiful shots in Earwig and the Witch, but they’re few and far between, and I don’t see any technical or practical reason to tell this story in CG. Studio Ghibli films have explored much more complex surroundings than this before, and they were able to do it by hand. I like computer animation more than a lot of animation fans; I don’t think it ruined the industry, and I think some concepts and designs actually work better that way. But I do miss American traditional animation, and it’s part (albeit a small part) of what makes animated features from Japan, France, Ireland, etc. so delightful and refreshing. CG animation is a particularly taboo subject among anime fans, and while I’m not sure how the Japanese feel about it, they don’t seem to utilize it much. Overall, I think the visuals in Earwig and the Witch range from serviceable to pretty good. Studio Ghibli has more hand-drawn projects in the pipeline at this moment, so I’m not really too worried about this. If they choose to pursue both mediums in the future, their computer graphics could always improve in subsequent ventures. 

Earwig and the Witch

At least on my phone, I couldn’t figure out how to watch the subbed version of this movie, though I plan to try again on a TV later. Subtitles are always my preference with foreign language films and TV, but fortunately, Studio Ghibli tends to secure top-talent actors to dub their films over, and Earwig and the Witch is no exception. Earwig is played by Taylor Henderson, who does a fabulous job for such a young actress. Earwig’s voice can be quite annoying at times, but given that her reigning character traits are that she’s manipulative and entitled, I took this to be an intentional choice. The Mandrake and Bella Yaga (I love this for a witch name) are voiced by Richard E. Grant and Vanessa Marshall. I don’t know Grant from much, but he was fantastic in Can You Ever Forgive Me? And sorry, but Vanessa Marshall will always be Hera Syndulla to me. I was surprised to learn that the Witch was Marshall, as her inflections and tone are nothing like what she did for Rebels. This is excellent voice acting. Grant uses words sparingly, but the connection with Earwig is genuine, and whenever he does speak, it tends to be a memorable highlight of the film. Until the credits rolled, I thought he was voiced by Bill Nighy; he also looks like him. Dan Stevens plays Thomas, Bella Yaga’s familiar who befriends Earwig. I’ve liked Dan Stevens since he played the best character in Downton Abbey, and I’ve even forgiven him for starring in the live-action Beauty and the Beast. He’s good as Thomas, but I wish his relationships with Bella Yaga and Earwig were explored more. His ability to speak adds nothing to his dynamic with Earwig; actually, I found it more endearing when he silently sat on her lap in bed. Stevens does no wrong here, though; the script gave him nothing to work with. 

Earwig and the Witch

That’s actually my main issue with Earwig and the Witch: the characters and their relationships. The performance and idea for Earwig are good, but what’s her journey? She starts the film as a manipulative, whiny little brat who doesn’t even bother telling her best friend goodbye, and that’s very much how she ends up. Her goal is to get Bella and the Mandrake under her thumb like the caretakers and children at the orphanage were. I like this for her initial motivation, but it seems like she should evolve or learn something from what she experiences in the film. This isn’t a likable or relatable goal for her, so why should she get what she wants at the end? Bella does mistreat her throughout the film, but I don’t see how Earwig deserves to essentially have two slaves as foster parents. By the way, Bella’s treatment of Earwig and Thomas the cat made me really uncomfortable. I can’t deal with films where animals and kids are abused; that’s why I never understood the appeal of Matilda. Luckily, it’s not too bad here. It just ends up making both Bella and Earwig equally unlikable in their little feud. The Mandrake becomes a peacemaker, but Bella is terrified of him, which is also unsettling. What is this movie trying to say? My favorite character is Thomas, followed by the Mandrake. But this film’s ensemble is easily among the weaker Ghibli casts. The soundtrack is enjoyable, but it doesn’t seem like a soundtrack. The music doesn’t always flow with what’s happening onscreen; at times, it even clashes with the film’s overall tone.

Verdict: Lacking

I prefer Earwig and the Witch to my least favorite Ghibli films, but it still has many problems. The animation is good at times, but never great, and some shots just look unfinished. I want to like the characters, but they give us so little. I won’t say what it is, but the ultimate twist isn’t surprising, and they never resolve the conflict in a satisfying way. For most studios, this film would probably rank somewhere in the middle. Still, for one as prestigious as Studio Ghibli, this definitely falls closer to the bottom. 

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