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Earwig and The Witch (2020)


For a while it seemed like Japan's legendary Studio Ghibli was no more. Even when there were shorts and commercials in production, it seemed they were out of the movie game for good. But then Hayao Miyazaki came out of retirement (again) to produce new feature How Do You Live? We then found out that even with that film's completion some years off, Goro Miyazaki (Hayao's son) had in the meantime produced another film of his own.

Earwig and The Witch is adapted from a children's book by British author Diana Wynne Jones (Howl's Moving Castle) and is Studio Ghibli's first fully CG animated movie. Premiered at Cannes Festival in 2020, it was originally made for TV, broadcast on Japan's NHK late last year. GKIDS Films subsequently picked up the North American rights, screening it in cinemas early this year before a Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital release from GKIDS and Shout Factory.  The film is also available streaming on HBO Max.


 

The story follows a young girl named Earwig who was left on the doorstep of an orphanage in the English countryside as a child.  Raised in the childrens' home as 'Erica Wigg', she grows up into a spirited and mischievous girl who practically runs the place. Despite her best efforts to avoid getting adopted (and leaving her happy life and friends behind) her luck eventually runs out, and she is taken to live with the fearsome Bella Yaga. Her new foster parent turns out to be a witch who works young Earwig to the bone. But she's not about to take it lying down and her efforts to get her own back soon leads to her uncovering some unexpected truths about where she comes from.

As the first CG feature from the Studio ( although they previously co-produced the TV series Ronja The Robber's Daughter, also directed by Goro) it was always going to face a lot of scrutiny. When the first images and footage made their way online, it's fair to say that the reception from western fans was extremely negative. Those who didn't know about Miyazaki senior's next movie were led to believe that Ghibli had abandoned hand-drawn animation for CG- which is of course, very much not the case. 


 

The roasting the film's CGI animation received online is not entirely fair. It's not that the animation quality is actually bad. True, it's nowhere near the quality of the best output of mega-budget Hollywood Studios like Disney, Pixar or DreamWorks. Japanese CG has a pretty bad reputation, largely because they have tried too hard to replicate the style of 2D anime in 3D. This even goes as far as the framerate, and the two styles haven't really meshed. Earwig doesn't do this, opting for fully animated CG over the "cel-shaded style, although it's still not as smooth as in other (higher-budget) productions.

On the other hand, the character designs are clearly based on the traditional Ghibli style. It doesn't do a bad job at this either, with Earwig/Erica herself (complete with her hair 'horns') looking every bit the classic Ghibli heroine. Other standout characters in design terms are her friend Custard,  the sinister Mandrake and adorable black cat familiar Thomas (a dead ringer for Kiki's Delivery Service's Jiji).

The characters do have a plasticky, artificial look to them, and the hair (and fur) is flat and not at all convincing. The textures are just not as impressive as we've become used to in a contemporary production. It's a real shame, especially as the backgrounds and environments are excellent and bring the locations to life. Another area where it impresses less is in the effects- elements such as water or fire are not up to standard, possibly pointing to inexperience among the animators.  


 

For the most part, the animation is solid but not spectacular. You have to remember that was a made for TV movie (and therefore lower budgeted) so it's not really fair to compare it to something like Raya and The Last Dragon.  But compare it to a lower-tier movie from a smaller studio, or to TV animation then it holds up just fine.

Miyazaki and Ghibli fans will find that despite the new medium, there is still much that's familiar. Opening with a car chase that could come straight out of The Castle Of Cagliostro, it goes on to include many Ghibli hallmarks, like a European setting, talking cat and the lack of a true villain. Earwig herself is also the prototypical heroine from one of the director's father's moves, although she's also got a slightly wilder, occasionally even mean side.

In a perfect world, every piece of art should be judged entirely on its own merits. But nothing exists in a vacuum so comparisons are going to be made. Earwig is inevitably going to be compared to Studio Ghibli's other films, and it's going to come up lacking. 

Miyazaki Junior is generally considered to be the Studio's lesser director, previously responsible for the critically derided Tales Of Earthsea adaptation and the slightly better received From Up On Poppy Hill. Earwig and The Witch is probably not going to change that perception, but it's a better film than Earthsea at least. 


 

A reason Goro is often criticised is for clinging too much to the Studio's template. Here it's mixed- while it's definitely trying to be a Ghibli film it does carve out a path of its own in some respects. It feels tonally quite unlike past Ghibli films, with none of the sense of wonder or respect for nature seen in the elder Miyazaki's canon. It also has something of a slightly wilder 'punk rock' edge to it, complete with leather-jacket wearing, motorbike riding witch rockstars. Gone too is the soaring Jo Hishashi soundtrack you'd expect, replaced by a rocking score from Satoshi Takebe (and catchy track Don't  Disturb Me performed by Kacey Musgraves in the English dub). Signs are there that Goro may be starting to find more of a voice of his own, and not before time. Maybe one day we'll get to see what Goro can really do if he steps fully outside his father's shadow.

The story is ultimately pretty inconsequential and it lacks much of a climax. It ends rather suddenly, and without much fanfare. It also doesn't explicitly give you the answers you may be expecting- instead implying them heavily and leaving you to draw your own conclusions.

Earwig and The Witch is definitely no masterpiece, but neither is it really deserving of the scorn it has had heaped upon it in some quarters.  It skews younger than some other Ghibli films, and will probably entertain younger viewers perfectly well. Others are advised to temper their expectations. Go into this knowing that it is not up there with the best of Ghibli or with the best CG animation, and you might just be surprised.


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 FORMAT: MOVIE AVAILABLE ON: BLU-RAY/ DVD/  DIGITAL / STREAMING  FROM: GKIDS FILMS & SHOUT FACTORY RATING: PG RUNNING TIME : 1hr 22min

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IN A NUTSHELL: A pleasantly diverting enough way to spend 80-odd minutes but undeniably lacking in that old Ghibli Magic.


 

★★★☆☆

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ALL IMAGES:  © 2020 NHK, NEP, Studio Ghibli |  screeners provided by Shout Factory.

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