Movie Review: Earwig and the Witch
Rated PG for some scary images and rude material
In recent years, Japan’s world-famous Studio Ghibli (home to films such as Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro), has quietly emerged back into the spotlight. While word circulated that co-founder Hayao Miyazaki has come out of retirement to work on a new film, there have been a few other artists who are producing films under the company’s name. One in particular is Hayao’s son, Goro.
Needless to say, Goro’s work for the studio has been somewhat of a mixed bag. His adaptation of Urusla Le Guin’s Tales From Earthsea is often ignored by some (and led to some bitter words from his father), while his sophomore effort From Up on Poppy Hill proved to be a rather enjoyable story about young people living in post-WWII Japan.
Now after almost a decade, Goro has returned to direct Earwig and the Witch, based on a story by Diana Wynne Jones (the author of Howl’s Moving Castle). Most notable about this production, is that it is the studio’s first where computer-generated imagery has been utilized to bring familiar character designs to life.
Cute and manipulative orphan Earwig (Kokoro Hirasawa) enjoys her days at the St. Morwald’s Home for Children, where she revels in quietly lording over the place and a number of its people.
Things change when one day, she is adopted by a woman named Bella Yaga (Shinobu Terajima), and her lanky partner named Mandrake (Etsushi Toyokawa). Earwig soon finds out that these strange people are actually a witch and a demon, living in a house not far from the orphanage.
Though Bella simply wants Earwig to be a helper as she prepares spells and enchantments to pay the bills, the young girl is determined to learn magic and other powers from her new guardians, whether they like it or not.
As soon as still images of the production were released, I was mildly apprehensive of the familiar Ghibli designs having been translated into the computer. Once I saw the characters in motion, it took some time to accept what was being done. There is definitely some care put into a rendering a lot of the familiar traits we’ve come to know for the studio’s character designs, but it feels like the animators tend to make some of the moves a bit more “floaty” than I would have expected, let alone the textures make the characters often look like plastic figurines. There are even a few areas where they had to compromise on translating some expressions, with one of the strangest being how they visualized the boisterous “Miyazaki laugh” many of us know.
Taking in the film as a whole, I found it hard at times to figure out just where the story was going. There are a number of times where it feels like we are getting little clues as to what may be coming down the pike, but they seldom seem to pan out.
A big element (and selling point of the ad materials), is that it seems Bella and Mandrake were once part of a band prior to the events in the film. One would have assumed that Earwig would have been pulled into this history lesson (she even shares the name of an album in Mandrake’s possession!), but the film doesn’t think this that important, making a few of the promo materials to feel misleading.
As a character, Earwig herself is one that is hard to really get behind, let alone see her as anything more than a little girl who is determined to make this new house bend to her will in a matter of time. Aside from her sneaking around the house and quietly griping at whatever Bella makes her do, there just aren’t a lot of quiet moments to really find much to make us care about her.
The same can be said for Bella Yaga and (the) Mandrake. They seem to have their own lives and things that they do, but the film just doesn’t want to take the time to explore this. We never do get to see Bella doing much outside of potion-making, and Mandrake just constantly gets fired up about one thing or another. It also stands to reason that Bella is not some wicked witch, given Earwig’s nice clothes and daily meals (though one could make a drinking game out of all the times Bella threatens to make Earwig “eat worms”).
The inability for the film to really go anywhere is its biggest downfall. Goro presents all these elements that make the viewer ready to find out more than Earwig just being stuck in the house, but he doesn’t do anything really compelling with these characters to push them out of their mundane lives. We’ve seen Hayao do some intriguing things with witches and demons in some of his films, but this film feels like if Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle just never did much once she got to the castle.
The film also brings back a former collaborator, in the form of Satoshi Takebe. Unlike his more traditional score from Up On Poppy Hill, Satoshi adds some jazzy rock instrumentals at time that seem quite out-of-place from what we’ve had in the past. It adds an extra layer of darkness and intrigue to the film, but the music at times also slows down to the more familiar melodic tempos we’ve known from past films too.
At the start, I slowly began to get sucked into the story of Earwig and the Witch, as the character stylings began to seem palatable and the unusual use of rock music seemed to feel like this could be a grand experiment for Studio Ghibli. Sadly, the story just feels like there are a bunch of better plotlines that never go anywhere. As I looked back on the film, one of the most shocking things to me was just when the film felt like it might actually go somewhere interesting…it ended!
Final Grade: C+