Occasionally you see a film, and at the end you’re not entirely sure how to feel about it.
Gorô Miyazaki directs his third film for Studio Ghibli, following Tales from Earthsea and From Up On Poppy Hill. It’s also Ghibli’s second adaptation of a story by Welsh author, Diana Wynne Jones, after Howl’s Moving Castle.
Earwig and the Witch is Studio Ghibli’s first foray into digital animation, and it’s a mixed bag. There are elements that place it firmly into their usual style. Handfuls of worms are thrown directly at the screen and spread outwards blocking our view. Food, magic, and strange characters combine in a way that western studios would never think to do. Some of these characters are morally ambiguous and conflicted in a way that is pure Ghibli, suggesting potential for some much better storytelling.
But then there are aspects that suggest they are beginning to experiment, with varying results. There is modern music, the usual piano score is replaced by variations on rock and roll and jazz. The animation itself has clear inspiration from Pixar, but little of the hyper realism and attention to facial expressions and performance that make Pixar films visually peerless.
It’s biggest problem however, aside from the issues with the visuals not being quite up to scratch, is a severe lack of story development.
We are introduced to a fascinating world. Earwig is left by her mother at an orphanage as a baby, where she is renamed Erica Wig. She grows into a confident, precocious, and mischievous little girl who has the adults and other children wrapped around her finger. She boasts that she can make people do whatever she wants, however despite her attempts to thwart adoption, she is taken home by a strange couple called Bella Yaga and The Mandrake.
Bella Yaga needs Earwig to be her assistant. As she puts her to work by day, Earwig sneaks back into her room of ingredients and cauldrons to secretly teach herself spells by night.
The most Ghibli-esque touches are in the design of the house itself. Rooms and doors seem to move and disappear, and the detail in the background of some of them is astounding. Design is not enough however, as the plot itself is a weak mess. Earwig herself seems to have virtually no arc starting as a fairly self-centred child, and ending as one too. Despite a set up that promises some big reveals towards the end, these are never realised, with a bizarre final scene that is more cliff-hanger than resolution. It feels unfinished and rushed, as though they had a huge number of ideas but no idea where to go with any of them.
Earwig and the Witch isn’t entirely without merit. It’s fairly short, and does entertain for the 80 minutes you’re given. It’s just incredibly anticlimactic. As the studio’s first step into digital animation, it’s not a particularly promising one, suggesting they should really stick to what they’re good at.
Earwig and the Witch will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on September 27th