The animated wonders from Studio Ghibli have stayed on heavy rotation in my household for a good 15 years now. When my kids were younger, they thrilled to the joyous antics of Totoro, the triumphs and setbacks of the young witch Kiki. As they aged and didn’t scare as easily, we progressed to the sometimes-frightening Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. And as for their dad, I’ve always marveled at the colorful hand-drawn settings, the imaginative creatures (Radish Spirit forever!), and the praiseworthy themes of ecological preservation and young people maturing into kindness and self-confidence.
So a new Ghibli film is a big deal at the Casa de Spitznas. Sadly, Earwig and the Witch is one of the legendary studio’s weakest efforts. Now with three features under his belt, its director Gorô Miyazaki (son of Ghibli co-founder Hayao) is showing himself to be the studio’s most uneven creator. His first, Tales from Earthsea (2006), boasted excellent world creation, but suffered from anemic characters lacking clear motives for their behavior. 2011’s From Up on Poppy Hill was an improvement in every way, if still not in the top tier of memorable Ghibli films.
Earwig and the Witch is a wobbly affair, with more debits than credits in its ledger book. On the plus side, the nifty world creation is there, its witch’s cottage populated by an elf-eared lord named Mandrake who can pass through its walls, miniature demon servants that are a mix of egg-shaped bat and tornado, and an adorable feline familiar.
In the minus column, the plot is an incoherent mess, with a prologue and concluding scene that turn everything in between into purposeless nonsense. Equally problematic, its protagonist’s narrative arc seems to be saying if you endure verbal and physical abuse with a tough attitude, the abusers will turn out to be swell people in the long run. If such a notion looked ugly in Hollywood’s Golden Age (see Carousel and The Philadelphia Story), it’s just as abhorrent in 2021.
I’m still on the fence about numerous aspects of Earwig. Ghibli’s first foray into 3D computer generated animation lacks the leap-off-the-screen gorgeous coloration of their hand-drawn features. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the hair of Pixar characters, but here, the coiffures look plastic, if pleasingly oddball. The English-language dubbing frequently doesn’t mesh with the mouth movements, either.
And these are not necessarily bad things, but it is jarring to watch a Ghibli film with a rock-and-roll soundtrack. Despite vocals by American country singer Kacey Musgraves, the overall vibe is a hodgepodge of 1970s-era Yes and drum-heavy jazz.
Likewise, Earwig’s main characters are not particularly appealing or amiable. After a prologue in which the title character is dropped off at an orphanage by her witch mother, we observe a preadolescent Earwig/Erica (Taylor Henderson) manipulating every adult and kid in her orbit, especially her tow-headed best friend with the marvelous name of Custard (Logan Hannon). She evades punishment for a nighttime haunting of the ancient graveyard next door by overpraising the matron of the orphanage, then butters up the cook, prompting him to prepare her beloved shepherd’s pie for lunch.
Her idyllic orphanage stay is disrupted when Mandrake (a deliciously dry and dour Richard E. Grant) and his heavyset blue-haired companion Bella Yaga (prolific voice actress Vanessa Marshall) arrive to take her home as their foster child. After a trudge through a splendidly-realized English village, the trio arrives at Earwig’s new home. The girl quickly discovers the cottage is a prison, as the door evaporates, the windows are painted shut, and the whirling demons prevent her from getting close to the gates when her chores take her outside.
Yaga employs Earwig as unpaid labor for her potion-brewing, reneging on her initial promise to pass along her skills. Despite Yaga’s threats to infest her with worms every time she slackens, Earwig is determined to bend the cottage’s denizens to her will, just as she managed at the orphanage.
Again, an unlikeable protagonist is not by definition a bad creative choice. I will admit, though: Earwig had me yearning for the winsome leads so lovingly crafted by Gorô’s father, Hayao.
(Earwig and the Witch is now streaming on HBO Max.)
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )