Earwig and the Witch is the latest offering from beloved Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli. More importantly, it represents a major shift in the company’s output in that it is a CG-animated film. It is, however, not the first time a Ghibli film takes inspiration from a Diana Wynne Jones novel. One only needs to go back to the early 2000s to find the likes of Howl’s Moving Castle. In addition to that, this is the third film from director Goro Miyazaki, and his first to largely exist as a television movie. After all, it saw a release on Japanese television stations on December 30, 2020. So how does the studio’s first CG-animated feature hold up?
The film follows a fiery young girl named Earwig who is adopted by a cruel witch named Bella Yaga and a demonic novelist only referred to as the Mandrake. Bella Yaga is a strict taskmaster, forbidding Earwig from learning magic and relegating her to scrubbing the floors of her potion workshop. Still, it’s not enough to dampen Earwig’s bright spirit. Eventually, she finds ways to hone her own magical craft with the help of her black cat Thomas.
The visual effects are stunning. The way water sloshes in a pitcher or the burning effect as the Mandrake phases through the wall are technical marvels. However, without the visual effects, the animation can feel drab in certain scenes. Without the lavishly detailed background illustrations, rooms can feel devoid of life. Still, the beauty comes in certain quiet moments: a gaggle of children dancing around a graveyard dressed like ghosts, a warm sunbeam shining through a window. Even bacon sizzling on a pan evokes the home comfort that many have come to associate with the studio.
The film lacked emotional impact due to Keiko Niwa and Emi Gunji’s unfocused screenplay. Interesting plot threads – including the identity of the mysterious red-haired witch who brought Earwig to the orphanage as a baby – vanish until the last fifteen minutes. Instead, the film pads itself with Earwig attempting to escape the house or convincing Bella Yaga to teach her magic. Additionally, Earwig frequently boasts of her uncanny ability to get anyone to do what she wants. However, there isn’t much payoff for this since she lacks magical mind-altering powers and isn’t particularly persuasive. I understand it comes from the folklore of earwigs crawling inside human ears. At the same time, it’s hard to equate minor pranks and childlike wheedling to an uncanny ability to persuade.
Regardless, this is a fine movie to watch with the family on a rainy day. Although suffering from an unfocused story, it would still be enjoyable to any child who delights in everyday magic. Certainly, any diehard Ghibli fan will find things to love, although I doubt Earwig can worm its way into the untouchable canon of the studio’s previous films. – Audrey Griffin
Earwig and the Witch will be released in theaters on February 3, 2021.