Directed by Gorō Miyazaki, “Earwig and the Witch” is Studio Ghibli’s first full animated feature in six years and their first venture into 3D CG animation. The combination of these two factors has caused all sorts of over-exaggeration and worries. However, the film itself feels like an antidote to this negativity. Its scope is small compared to other Ghibli movies, which is quite understandable due it being a “TV movie”, but the joyous spirit is still present in the story.
Earwig is a 10-year-old orphan who isn’t interested in being adopted. She’s adventurous, mischievous and has a happy life in the orphanage. She knows exactly what to do and say to make the adults in charge obey her.
However, Earwig’s life changes when an unfriendly witch and her mysterious companion adopt her and force her to work in the former’s potions room. Along with a talking cat called Thomas, Earwig starts to formulate a plan to make the most out of the magic in the house and turn the tables against her bossy new mother.
Earwig is defiant and clever; when something doesn’t go her way, she plans and claws until her desires are fulfilled. This might sound manipulative, but the screenplay does a good job of keeping the character at bay; Earwig’s actions are never evil. Instead, it’s fascinating to watch her navigate an adult world of orders and impatience by using joy and brains.
The rest of the cast is great. With an alluring presence and an aura of mystery, The Mandrake almost steals the movie. Always surrounded by demons, music, magic and food, he’s an imaginative character who hates being disturbed but has a lot of heart. His scenes were the most Ghibli-ish of them all, and the animations used for his big moments were remarkable.
Thomas is an adorable and scared ally that reminds Earwig of her best friend back at the orphanage, while Bella Yaga’s is the least developed; she’s a cruel and angry antagonist that serves its purpose, but until the last third of the film, you can’t find depth in her character.
I admire the will of Gorō trying something new with this CG animation. That, plus the whole character structure of Earwig, feels like a statement from director Gorō Miyzaki: a defiant son doing an animated film his way. That confidence is what makes “Earwig and the Witch” pop out of the screen.
The film was made for Japanese TV, and the constraints of the limited budget can be felt in the small number of locations, as well as the good but unremarkable animation. The environments are nice enough, but the traditional hand-drawn magic is missing, and although the character designs are vibrant and creative, most of the 3D models are unimpressive. If you show a couple of frames to someone who doesn’t know anything about the movie, they might think it’s from a random non-Disney American animation from the last decade. Having said that, there are flashes of brilliance in the CG. Some scenes — such as one featuring a very angry demon — make the most out of the power of 3D to create memorable moments, and the potion’s room is immersive thanks to the variety of objects, colors and details in it.
Fortunately, the Ghibli charm is present in the story. Writers Keiko Niwa and Emi Gunji adapted a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, whose work also inspired the beloved “Howl’s Moving Castle.” Also, it was Hayao Miyazaki who recommended this “Earwig and the Witch” adaptation. The result is a lively adventure that will bring entertainment to both adults and kids alike.
The third act is wonderful, but right when you are most invested in the interactions between Earwig, her witch mother and demon father, the film ends. The same goes for the relationship between Earwig and her mother: Throughout the movie it feels like an afterthought, and just when you are about to learn more about it, it’s all over. That’s the biggest flaw of “Earwig and the Witch”: its sudden ending. It made the entire thing feel incomplete. The end credits, however, are a hand-drawn beauty and a glimpse into the future of the main character that will leave you wanting for a second chapter about her life.
A show stealer is the music. Takebe Satoshi’s original score is absolutely gorgeous and full of wonder — another Ghibli score that hits the mark. The ‘70s British rock-inspired and organ-infused main song might be even better; it’s titled “Don’t Disturb Me” and it infuses a ton of energy to the story.
Although flawed, “Earwig and the Witch” is a wholesome return by Studio Ghibli. The charming story and colorful characters make up for the CG animation’s lack of identity. It’s far from being the best Studio Ghibli, but even with the incomplete plot, the magic of it all is enough to fill the soul with joy.
“Earwig and the Witch” will open in select theaters on February 3 and will be available to stream on HBO Max starting February 5.
Ricardo is a Mexico City based bilingual writer, digital animation graduate and awards season nerd. He also enjoys pro wrestling, is a Paddington fan and is the founder of the film website “La Estatuilla.”