Earwig and the Witch Review: A disappointing, but solid enough return for Studio Ghibli
After over six years of animated silence, aside from a collaboration with Dutch filmmaker Michael Dudok de Wit for Red Turtle back in 2016, Studio Ghibli returns with its first 3-D animated film helmed by Goro Miyazaki – Earwig and the Witch.
At first, it’s easy to look at Earwig and the Witch and just see it as another magical adventure from Ghibli. Its story of a young orphan named Earwig (voiced by Taylor Paige Henderson) trying to turn the tables on a pair of powerful and daunting magic wielders is perfectly fitting for a Ghibli film. However, it’s actually much different than any other Ghibli film and it’s not just because of the big shift to 3-D animation.
When talking about the movie, Goro talked about how his father, the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, and longtime Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki basically greenlit the film and stepped away to let him totally helm the film. He even jokingly said that he “didn’t consult with the old guys at all” when making this film and hired a young staff that had more experience with CG animation. All of this sadly feels fitting with the final product as Earwig and the Witch’s efforts to create a fresh entry ultimately feel like film being unable to break from traditions.
Studio Ghibli has always been known for creating fascinating and deep animated worlds that feature iconic character and setting designs, but never in 3-D. After seeing it used here, I don’t necessarily hope that Studio Ghibli never does a 3-D animated film again, but I at least hope they improve on certain aspects.
The improved textures and lighting are easily the most impressive technical elements with the level of detail they bring to the environment and magic of the film. The film has one of the most visually eye-catching settings of a Ghibli film. It creates more realistic depictions of buildings and landscapes that you wouldn’t often see in a Ghibli film and the food looks so good here that you’ll want to eat it on sight. The film doesn’t leave the magic behind though as it creates some eye-dazzling effects that stand out. Things like seeing Earwig and the crude witch Bella Yaga (voiced by Vanessa Marshall) conjure up some magic spells and the sparks in the omnipotent Mandrake’s (voiced by Richard E. Grant) furious eyes looked incredible.
Even the character designs and more detailed facial expressions are nice and it’s easy to dig on some of the 70s rock music and colors the film has. The character models, however, are not as good as they just don’t blend into the more realistic environment. The characters look like dolls most of the time and the greater detail in their expressions end up working against the film when it comes to the dialogue. With only an English dub version being available on HBO Max, the mouth movement not synching up to the words is so much more noticeable. It’s so distracting that if the option was available, I probably would’ve just made the language Japanese and put-on English subtitles to make the viewing experience a little easier and less confusing.
The score from Satoshi Takebe also adds to the confusion as it attempts to also have a 70s rock feel to, but ultimately feels like it only serves to stiff arm the film further from feeling like a Ghibli film. It’s loud, very action-oriented, and oddly riffs on the Pink Panther theme at times. It’s one of the most unnecessary parts of the film that overstays its welcome and totally takes you out of the film. It feels more fitting for something like Schoolhouse Rock than a Ghibli film and perhaps with that style of animation it could’ve worked, but here it just doesn’t. It’s a shame that these technical elements aren’t as cohesive as usual since it could helped make the story be a little more ambitious.
Compared to other witch stories in Ghibli’s portfolio, Earwig and the Witch doesn’t have as much depth or world-building as other Ghibli films. The story, as a whole, is pretty straightforward and doesn’t bring viewers on a deeply personal or ambitious adventure like usual. There’s definitely something delightful about watching Earwig slowly work up the frustration and knowledge to turn the tables on Bella Yaga and Mandrake and the backstory that’s built on these two’s former lives is pretty cool and creates a warm connection. There’re also some perfectly great light-hearted moments with Earwig pulling some Home Alone shenanigans and some funny moments with Mandrake’s minions. However, Earwig isn’t as likeable as other Ghibli protagonists with how childish and annoying she can be and she barely even has a relatable character arc.
Worst of all, the film barely has a strong conclusion in terms of how it wraps up the whole storyline with Bella Yaga and Mandrake being connected to Earwig’s birthmother. Throughout the whole film, you’re wondering when Earwig is going to realize that these know her birthmother and if she’s going to ever see her. The film offers an incredibly short and unsatisfying wrap up to this that feels like sequel bait rather than a real conclusion. It totally robs Earwig of some interesting personal growth and completely wastes that entire part of the story. It’s one of the big things that makes this film pale in comparison to other Ghibli films and makes its story totally forgettable.
Earwig and the Witch is a film that’s caught between two worlds but still isn’t bad. It’s certainly not the grand return of Studio Ghibli that many want to see with how it tries to divert from the usual expectations of a Ghibli film, but there is something about it that’s interesting. Even if Earwig and the Witch is a bottom-tier Ghibli movie, it’s still a solid enough magical adventure that’s worth looking into and for Studio Ghibli to learn from as Hayao Miyazaki prepares to deliver his possible Magnum Opus with How Do I Live?