"Earwig and the Witch" stars Shinobu Terajima, Etsushi Toyokawa, Gaku Hamada, Kokoro Hirasawa, and Sherina Munaf. Released on December 30, 2020, the film is about an orphan taken in by a group of witches.
The film was directed by Gorō Miyazaki, who also directed "Tales from Earthsea" and "From Up on Poppy Hill". It is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones. Studio Ghibli is widely known for its vibrant and breathtaking 2D animated masterpieces. Ranging from "Castle in the Sky" to "When Marnie Was There", the studio has created tons of gems that rival Disney and even Pixar in the animation department for more than 35 years. All it took for them was a healthy dose of imagination and a bunch of paper and pencils. In 2020, however, the studio decided to go in a much different direction for their latest project. It went for a distinct approach that could either ruin the studio's reputation or provide more competition for its opponents. That's right, Ghibli fans, they made a fully computer-animated feature. No paper, pencil, nor coloring tools required. While Hayao Miyazaki's 2018 short film "Boro the Caterpillar" was the first project from Studio Ghibli to be 100% CGI, this film is the first full-length feature from the studio to utilize this style of animation. It is also the latest film to be directed by Miyazaki's son Gorō who, according to my research, is the only person in the studio who understands the process of CG animation. This was due to his involvement with the television series "Ronja, the Robber's Daughter", which also used CGI effects. Gorō Miyazaki got off to a rocky start with his directorial debut, the 2006 adaptation of "Tales from Earthsea", but then he bounced back with his sophomore project "From Up on Poppy Hill" a few years later. So that should make his third feature film as a director the deciding point as to whether or not he's ready to continue his father's legacy. No pressure. It made its debut as a made-for-television film on Japan's NHK General TV back in late December, and so far, critics and audiences haven't been too kind with the final result. The negative response resulted in the movie being the lowest-rated Studio Ghibli film in its long history. Still, that didn't stop it from making its United States debut on HBO Max this weekend, courtesy of independent animation distributor GKIDS. With that in mind, let's see if this film is truly the hand that slaps the studio's legacy in the face. For this review, I will be looking at the English dub version, which featured the voices of Taylor Paige Henderson, Vanessa Marshall, Richard E. Grant, Dan Stevens, and Kacey Musgraves.
Set in late 20th Century England, the story follows Earwig (Hirasawa), an unruly 10-year-old girl who lives at the St. Morwald's Home for Children. She enjoys pulling pranks and has no desire to get adopted. One day, two mysterious witches show up and take her under their wing against her wishes. Those witches are Bella Yaga (Terajima) and Mandrake (Toyokawa). During her time with the witches, Earwig discovers plenty of secrets that may change her perspective towards them. It's no surprise that Studio Ghibli films have a sense of charm and imagination that invigorates their stories, and "Earwig and the Witch" appears to be one of them. Unfortunately, those primary qualities can only take this plot so far. While charming in some moments, the film failed to capitalize on its intriguing plot elements and world-building. Not only did it feel incomplete due to its abrupt ending, but it also lacked the inspiration and heart that made the other Ghibli films unique in the first place. It's far from a terrible story as it has a couple of things that I thought were amusing, such as Satoshi Takebe's score and the English cast. However, I can see that it was having trouble finding the right spell to make it more captivating. The English dub had some dialogue that was close to being cringe-worthy. However, it was overshadowed by some respectable vocal performances, ranging from Henderson as Earwig to Grant as Mandrake. As for the characters themselves, I would say that they're a step down from Ghibli's other memorable characters, especially the title character. The movie sets Earwig up as a character who discovers the secrets from her past and learns to be selfless towards others. The only problem with that was that this type of character development is close to being nonexistent. She didn't grow that much as a character throughout the entire movie at all. Compared to Ghibli's other strong female leads like Chihiro from "Spirited Away", Earwig is both unlikable and a tad bit irritating. Even the side characters, including Bella Yaga, weren't that memorable. The film spends most of its 80-minute runtime showcasing the characters being jerks to one another, resulting in some repetition. Also, the way they worked things out in its conclusion felt unrewarding. In other words, the film's characters are like the story itself. They're not as impressive as I hoped they would be. The animation has been the main topic of discussion for all the wrong reasons ever since Studio Ghibli revealed the film's first-look images. While I did see that it looked different compared to the studio's hand-drawn animation style, I was mature enough to hold off my judgment until I see its animation style in action. After some careful studying, I can finally conclude that the film's animation was meh. It's not great, and it's not horrific, either. It's understandably flawed. It attempted to use CGI to mimic the usual hand-drawn animation style that the studio is known for, leading to mixed results in my eyes. While the backgrounds looked visually appealing and the character designs were suitable, everything else didn't capture lightning in the cauldron in a way that the studio's 2D style did in their filmography. The visuals looked a bit bland at times, and the facial expressions on some of the characters were very jarring, most notably Earwig. That girl is not very lucky. It felt like I was watching a low-budget CGI film that Disney and Pixar didn't make, and not a good one.
Overall, "Earwig and the Witch" fails to be as spellbinding as Studio Ghibli's other animated treasures. Despite a fine cast and its musical score, this is a bland and unpleasant mess that lacks the primary qualities that made the studio the king of Japanese animation. With its weak characters, a tedious plot, and its imperfect animation style, this is a massive step down from Ghibli's other works and Gorō Miyazaki's previous directorial effort "From Up on Poppy Hill". If the studio decides to make another film with this type of animation, I'm hoping that it upgrade its style to make it look less creepy than what we got here. Otherwise, it's probably for the best that they return to their hand-drawn roots to avoid some more backlash from its fans. However, I will give the studio some credit for stepping out of their comfort zone and experiment with their style, even though the final result was far from spectacular. It's available to watch on HBO Max, so if you're looking for something new to watch with the kids, this one might suit you well. If you're a big fan of Studio Ghibli, there's a good chance that you might not like this one as much as its previous films.