Ghibli Enters the Third Dimension – Earwig and the Witch

While Disney and Pixar will always get the largest heaps of praise when it comes to American cinematic animation, Japan’s Studio Ghibli stands as an ever-constant reminder that the rest of the world exists, and can always compete with the best of them. From lighthearted children’s fare like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service to masterpieces like Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, and the Oscar-winning Spirited Away, the studio – thanks to director Hayao Miyazaki – has proven time and again the artistic value of anime to audiences around the globe, and challenging the way we look at animation, movies, and life itself.

One of the trademarks of the studio has been the almost retro feel of the films, committed to hand-drawn 2D animation – with occasional CG elements – for the last 30 years. With their latest release, Earwig and the Witch, Ghibli has finally ventured into 3D with its first fully CG film, directed by Gorō Miyazaki, Hayao’s son. It’s a noble attempt to show that the studio as a whole isn’t limiting itself, and grading on a generous curve, I can give it a mild recommendation, but if we’re going to compare Ghibli to Pixar in terms of quality, this is decidedly the Cars of their output.

Currently streaming on HBO Max, which carries the entire Ghibli library, the film is based on a book by Diane Wynne Jones, who also wrote Howl’s Moving Castle. The story and character designs seemingly draw a lot of inspiration from the works of Roald Dahl, and on the whole it’s very light and occasionally charming. The problem is the weight of Ghibli’s reputation for deep storytelling with breathtaking visuals, and this film comes up short in both areas.

Somewhere in England, a red-haired woman on a motorcycle (country singer Kasey Musgraves in the English-language dub) outruns a small car chasing her, and deposits an infant on the doorstep of an orphanage. The baby girl is left with a cassette tape simply marked, “Earwig,” and a note to the matron that the woman is off to fight a council of 12 witches and will come back for the girl, also called “Earwig,” when it’s safe to do so. The girl is taken in and renamed Erica Wigg.

Fast forward something like 10 years, and “Erica,” voiced by child actress Taylor Paige Henderson, is the queen of the orphanage. She orchestrates pranks like having all the children dress as ghosts and run around the cemetery, and she has an underling in the form of timid boy Custard (Logan Hannan). She gets away with just about anything because she’s sugary sweet to the staff and does whatever she’s asked within reason. This serves her goal of having everyone do whatever she wants, and she finds her life ideal, to the point that she sabotages any attempts to be adopted.

That all changes when she’s taken in by two very conspicuous people, the blue-haired Bella Yaga (voice actress Vanessa Marshall, daughter of Joan Van Ark) and the extremely tall, pointy-eared Mandrake (Richard E. Grant). When they bring Erica to their home (a stone cottage in the middle of an everyday suburban street – very nice touch), they reveal that they are witches, and Erica is only there to assist Bella in her work creating magic spells and potions for paying customers. They also have a talking black cat (because of course they do) named Thomas, voiced by Dan Stevens.

Much of the rest of the film is spent on the antagonistic relationship between Erica and Bella. The elder treats the child as a slave and constantly threatens her with punishment via magical worms if she gets out of line. Mandrake, who is short-tempered and very dangerous, is not to be disturbed under any circumstances, but he instantly warms to Erica’s charms, enough to be kind to her despite a very gruff exterior.

This is part of why the story falls flat in the end. There are a lot of interesting things to explore here, and I actually really like the progression of the rivalry between all three sides (four if you count the cat, but he barely registers), but unfortunately, this is basically a two-act film completely missing its third act. I won’t spoil the ending, merely mention that it’s very abrupt and leaves so many questions unanswered. My sister, who saw the film a few days before me, warned me that it was “light on plot.” You don’t know the half of it!

As for the quality of the animation, it’s not terrible, just nothing special. It’s what Pixar would have put out about 15 years ago, or what Illumination puts out now. There are some brilliant touches, like the red-haired woman (identified explicitly as Earwig’s mother only in the end credits) and Bella’s respective hairdos. The strands are delicately spun and given a bright sheen, almost like decorative glass. I also really liked the spinning, fat bat “demons” employed by Mandrake to run his various errands.

But one area where the venture into 3D fails is in the facial movements. Despite the added depth, the film is still very much produced in a traditional anime style, which includes moving characters “on threes,” or every third frame, to give it a slightly slower feel, and giving them over-the-top, highly expressive eye and mouth motions. In normal 2D anime this is part of the appeal, and the circular lip flaps make it easier for importers to match the mouth movements in the dubbing process. Here, especially in the first 15 minutes of the film, the mouth movements are so slow and bulgy that there’s no reasonable way to match up the English voice actors, so at times it doesn’t even look like they try. I can give it a slight pass because this is the first attempt, and there are signs of potential, but there needs to be vast improvement in this area.

Where the film succeeds best is in two parts. First, despite the clunky at times animation, and despite the fact that she’s basically a sociopath, Earwig/Erica is an undeniably fun, charming protagonist. Even when you think she’s being reprehensible as a poor man’s Matilda, you can’t help but smile and laugh. There were many times where I found myself like Mandrake, wanting to set the entire house on fire only to be calmed by her cheeky, shit-eating grin. It was also hilarious that her intentionally pinned up hair horns made her look like a Batman ghost during the cemetery scene.

Second is the music, which is just top freaking notch. Satoshi Takebe orchestrated the score, and along with Gorō Miyazaki wrote the in-film original songs, and they’re both fantastic. Playful strings, jazz organ, and some kick-ass retro rock form the basis of the soundtrack, including the secret of the “Earwig” name and Mandrake’s need to not be disturbed. The discovery of the Earwig music, and the extradimensional directions it takes us, is the one part of the film that actually scratches the surface of that otherworldly Ghibli magic we’ve come to expect.

So yeah, I’m feeling a bit charitable here. Is this a great movie? Certainly not, and honestly, it’s barely up to the Ghibli standard. If this were the fourth or fifth CG film they’d put out, I’d judge it much more harshly. But this is a first attempt, and one that show promise despite its many flaws. It’s very nearly a misfire, but there’s definitely something to build on from here, and I recommend seeing the film if nothing else than to give a context for just how far the studio’s come over the years, and how much it can still learn.

Grade: C+

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite Ghibli film? Are you as certain as I am that people will confuse this with “Hedwig and the Angry Inch?” Let me know!

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