February 2021 saw the theatrical release of a new Studio Ghibli film, Earwig and the Witch, and it wasn’t quite as well received as hoped. While the switch from hand-drawn animation to 3D CG was, initially, off-putting, the real issue steamed from the narrative, ending just when the film seemed to be starting. For good or for bad, Earwig is out in the universe and coming home via Shout! Factory on April 6th, 2021. The home release edition comes with few but robust bonus features, with one feature exclusive to Blu-ray. So pick your version carefully before buying.
If you’re unfamiliar with Earwig and the Witch and would prefer to learn about it without spoilers, head over to the initial theatrical review. If you don’t mind learning details, move forward.
As an infant, Earwig (voiced by Kokoro Hirasawa/Taylor Paige Henderson) is dropped off at an orphanage until such time as her beleaguered mother (voiced by Sherina Munaf/Kacey Musgraves) can come back in safety to retrieve her. Some years later, Earwig, renamed Erica Wig by the orphanage matron, basically runs the place, having found ways to get the staff and other children to do what she wants. Her free-wheeling days end when a woman and her companion arrive and aren’t put off by her insubordinate attitude, adopting her on the spot. Upon getting to her new home, the woman, Baba Yaga (voiced by Shinobu Terajima/Vanessa Marshall), informs Erica that she’s a witch and that they adopted Erica to help her duties. The man, known as The Mandrake (voiced by Etsushi Toyokawa/Richard E. Grant), she is told, is not to be disturbed. Not one to take orders lying down, Erica begins to study Baby Yaga to learn what she can about magic and, all the while, wait for her opportunity to gain the upper hand in her life once more.
There’s a lot that doesn’t appear to work with Earwig and, from watching the near-30-minute featurette “Creating Earwig and the Witch,” one thing that is troublesome has an answer: the film follows the path of the 2011 novel from author Diana Wynne Jones. This means that the abruptness of the narrative is entirely on purpose, so the issue of communicating the arc of the narrative may be in the adaption process or in translating a book to screen. Most novel adaptations struggle when taking the internal and making it external, a problem that constantly plagued the Hunger Games novels, requiring them to focus on spectacle without the aid of central character Katniss Everdeen’s internal process to convey intent and tone moment to moment. In the case of Earwig, the problem presents itself as Erica, Baba Yaga, and The Mandrake finally come to some kind of cease-fire when the mother arrives and the story ends right around the 83-minute mark. By this point, the audience is made aware that Erica’s mother is the former bandmate of Baba Yaga and The Mandrake, but none of them have pieced it together. This would be fine if the film extended after Mom’s appearance, enabling the finally peaceful home to contend with this new piece of information. Heck, if the characters had this knowledge and used it in their combat of control, that might have added to the overall tension between them. But, because it doesn’t occur this way, because the story leaves these aspects out (potentially for a follow-up that will now never come as Jones passed away in 2011), what the audience is given feels incomplete narratively. Leaving questions for a follow-up is not unheard of in stories and a good cliffhanger will have the audience yearning for more upon the end of this story. Unfortunately, this is not the case with Earwig as the narrative doesn’t give you enough tension in the story to care if it continues. The button on the tale is so abrupt and out of nowhere that it only elicits confusion, rather than intrigue, frustration, rather than release.
Another issue comes from the marketing of the film. The overall tone of the film is rock n’roll, specifically of the seventies, as explained by director Gorô Miyazaki in the featurette “Creating Earwig and the Witch.” The film opens with Mom riding her motorcycle singing an acapella version “Don’t Disturb Me,” the only track the audience hears from the once sold-out band, Earwig, which Mom, Baba Yaga, and The Mandrake played in. Based on the poster for the film, which shows Erica as lead singer, one would expect that music would play an enormous part in the narrative. It doesn’t, not even remotely. The story doesn’t explore why Erica has a tape marked “Earwig,” why her mom abandoned the band (outside of the letter she left with infant Earwig), or why the music is significant to Baba Yaga or The Mandrake. Instead, the film is a fairly average child’s tale in the vein of Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking, where a precocious child gets into trouble in the pursuit of keeping/maintaining her freedoms. Amusingly, producer Toshio Suzuki says the script for Earwig reminded him of Pippi when he read it. There’s nothing wrong with the film not being about or focusing on music, but everything about the marketing implies that there’s a narrative connection to the point that several people asked me prior to the theatrical release if the title of this film is in any way related to John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s 1998 state musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which it is not. A film can involve music, but never be *about* music. Plenty have done that, but at no point in the film is music a central component of Earwig, Erica herself never picks up the mic, and the musical past/connection between Erica, Baba Yaga, and The Mandrake is barely touched. So what is the point? The things which confuse or confound upon finishing Earwig are plenty. It’s not that the film is bad, per say, just incomplete.
If, however, you either enjoyed the experience or would like to know more about it, there are about 45 minutes of featurettes that explore the film technically and creatively. The aforementioned “Creating Earwig” featurette is broken into several pieces where Suzuki and director Gorô Miyazaki take turns discussing what drew them to the project before shifting to members of the animation team to walk us through the process of making the film. If you’re an animation buff or are curious what goes into making 3D CG, hearing from CG Supervisor Yukinori Makamura, Art Director Yuhki Takeuchi, and Animation Supervisor Tan Se Ri is like pulling back the curtain on Imagination Land. Each one is afforded time to discuss their specialty and demonstrate a bit of the process they went through to create their portions of the film. Curious what the actors thought of making Earwig? You’ll hear from the four principle voice actors as they answer the same questions in the 15-minute featurette “Interviews with the Japanese Voice Cast.” Yes, you read that right, this featurette only focuses on the Japanese cast, so there is no Dan Stevens, Richard E. Grant, or Kacey Musgraves on the home release. Though this featurette does feel more produced, more a tool of marketing than a peek at how they approached the work, there are several interesting tidbits that make it worth the time. Of the remaining bonus features, the only one also listed as available on all sources is the section marked “Trailers & Teasers,” which house the various promotional videos put out before release. If you want to get a look at the feature-length storyboards in both available languages, you will have to purchase the Blu-ray. Having looked at them, this may only interest a specific niche group of individuals who are curious what the storyboards looked like compared to the final released version. Admittedly, the fact that they released them with the final score and vocal work is pretty neat and, for those who enjoy this type of material, will likely be pleased.
With Earwig and the Witch coming home and the bonus features laid out for you, the final choice to make (outside of whether picking it up is an option for you) is which version: standard or steelbook. Though you can get these from other retailers, Shout! Factory is offering a 15 x 16 cotton tote with the purchase, while supplies last. So pick your edition and pick it carefully. Although, I do recommend not making this a blind buy unless you’re a Studio Ghibli completionist. If you haven’t seen the film, it became available for streaming on HBO Max February 5th, 2021, and remains available in either English or Japanese languages as of this writing.
Earwig and the Witch Special Features
- Feature-Length Storyboards in Japanese and English** (82:47)
- Creating Earwig and the Witch (29:46)
- Interviews with Japanese Voice Cast (15:32)
- Trailers & Teasers (7:45)
**Only available on the Blu-ray
Available for streaming on HBO Max beginning February 5th, 2021.
Available on digital March 23rd, 2021.