Studio Ghibli’s Earwig and the Witch marks their 22nd feature film and their first 3D animated feature. Adapted from the 2011 novel by Diana Wynne Jones (the second film of theirs adapted from her books, the first being Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)), Earwig is intended to be a fantastical adventure in which a precocious orphaned child finds herself adopted by a witch, Bella Yaga, and her partner, The Mandrake. The problem is that Earwig ends right when the film feels like it’s just beginning, leaving the audience feeling like they’ve been swindled at the sudden appearance of the credits. If this were any other studio than Ghibli, irritation would be the furthest one might go as the film, up to that point, is quite charming; but it’s not another studio, it’s the preeminent Studio Ghibili and Earwig is far from the presumed quality of one of their films.
Dropped off at an orphanage as an infant, Earwig (voiced by Kokoro Hirasawa/Taylor Paige Henderson), called Erica by the matron of the institution, grows up without any idea that her mother (voiced by Sherina Munaf/Kacey Musgraves) is a powerful witch on the run. This ignorance keeps Erica safe and trouble at bay; well, at least trouble from the outside as Erica manages to create plenty of her own as she manipulates everyone in the orphanage so that she can do as she pleases. All of her fun is ruined, however, when Bella Yaga (voiced by Shinobu Terajima/Vanessa Marshall) and The Mandrake (Etsushi Toyokawa/Richard E. Grant) arrive and select her to be their adopted daughter, only to reveal that Bella Yaga only selected Erica so that she could have an extra pair of hands mixing spells and potions for the various customers in town. No longer the top dog, Erica must start all over, learning whatever magic she can so that she can go back to living a life where she controls everything.
First, in case you’re curious about the title, Earwig has no connection whatsoever to John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s 1998 state musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. There is music in the form of “Don’t Disturb Me,” the sole track that plays throughout the film and whose connection to Erica is explained through the narrative. The titular name “Earwig” is more closely tied to the definition meaning, “to annoy or attempt to influence by private talk.” It’s a reference to how Erica, or Earwig, learns how to get her preferences through frequently subtle manipulation. In her characterization, it’s not so much that she wants people under her, as some form of royalty to be worshipped, it’s that she just likes to do as she pleases and, therefore, likes to get what she wants. In the few scenes we get with her at the orphanage, Erica demonstrates how she does this through polite conversation, helpfulness, and awareness of others so there’s a clear distinction that she’s not out to harm others to get what she wants. This matters as she engages in a tug-of-war with Bella Yaga and The Mandrake once she moves in with them. In this, Earwig is consistent across the board in presenting Erica as gifted young girl she is while also keeping her in a state of unease, requiring growth via challenges. This is a staple of other Ghibli stories, as are the magical elements making up the world in which Erica exists.
Having not read the 2011 novel by Jones and the Google preview limiting what I can see remotely, I can’t get any kind of read on the adaption developed by famed Ghibli animator Hayao Miyazaki (Howl’s Moving Castle), written by Keiki Niwa (When Marnie Was There) and Emi Gunji, and directed by Gorô Miyazaki (From Up on Poppy Hill). Other avenues for determining details of the original novel also proved fruitless, which leaves the film to be examined solely on the merits of what Gorô presents and, strangely, it’s not much. With a runtime of 83 minutes, there’s plenty of story to be had, but what we get is incomplete; where the film ends is unexpected, as though it was in the middle of a sentence and then it abruptly stopped. As mentioned, I can’t tell if this was the original ending, with Jones planning to return for a follow-up, or by design, but it’s both off-putting and frustrating to say the least. With Jones having passed in 2011 and her final book being “The Islands of Chaldea,” if there is another story to come, it won’t be written by the original author. Without getting into spoilers, Earwig ends roughly when the fourth act of a four act play is set to begin. Erica has been introduced, she’s moved in with Bella Yaga and The Mandrake, and has made for herself a home within her magical surroundings. She’s even discovered that her new parents are members of the band she’s been listening to from the tape left with her at the orphanage. Except this part isn’t explored in the slightest by either the characters and seems only relevant for the audience. Perhaps this is what’s intended in the next part of the story, should that be the design, but, if not, it’s entirely frustrating and there’s no real conflict resolution nor is there true growth, just a return to status quo within a new environment. Even a kid’s film needs to offer some kind of fulfilling resolution if it’s going to tell a whole story, yet, it seems content to tell only a fraction of a story and leave the satisfaction for the imagination.
A review of Earwig wouldn’t be compete without at least mentioning the 3D animation. In an interview, Gorô explained that, “I felt that there’d be no future for the studio if I just copied what they had done.” It makes sense that Gorô would want to push things in his third film so that not only can he continue to develop his own vision, but to push Ghibli beyond the hand-drawn animation the studio’s used for years. There’s just one problem: the 3D approach does nothing to enhance the experience that 2D couldn’t have done as well or better. Look at the recent animated film Lupin III: The First, also distributed by GKids. It also used 3D animation to tell its tale and the use of it made the action/adventure crime caper feel about as close to a live-action Lupin tale as you could get without actually using real people. GKids’s 2019 release Promare utilized a mixture of 2D and 3D animation so that the fight sequences of mechs versus flame creations (or other mechs) felt like it was leaping off the screen. There is none of this with Earwig. Not a single sense that what was created required 3D animation to tell the story. Using the advanced animation style isn’t a deal breaker for a majority of studios. Illumination, DreamsWorks, Pearl, and others are using 3D animation in their features, but, most often, the use is about telling an animated story that can’t be done in live-action. For Earwig, the 3D animation’s waxy look and perpetual stiffness eschews the grounding nature of reality for something that should be wondrous and is, sadly, pedestrian and uninspired. Coming from any other studio this would be sad, but from Ghibli it feels like a waste of wonderful talent on an incomplete story.
Though Earwig doesn’t quite live up to the magnitudinous reputation of Studio Ghibli, one can’t fault Gorô for moving the studio in this direction. It’s not that there’s something wrong with hand-drawn animation or that 2D animation is, in some manner, lacking. It’s that it makes sense for an animation studio to play within the medium. To stay within the same lane for the entirety of their operation may bring comfort to their audiences, but that same comfort can turn to mundanity for artists and creatives. If Ghibli or even Gorô decides to do another 3D film, we can only hope that the narrative is more complete and the style more necessary to the telling of the tale.
In select theaters February 3rd, 2021.
Available for streaming on HBO Max February 5th, 2021.
Available on digital March 23rd, 2021.
Final Score: 2 out of 5.