"Earwig and the Witch"
Release Date: Feb. 3, 2021 in theaters; Feb. 5, 2021 on HBO Max
Running Time: 82 minutes
What to make of Studio Ghibli’s first 3D computer-animated endeavor? Well, for a film about the pursuit of magical powers, Earwig and the Witch rarely enchants and never justifies the legendary Japanese studio’s abandonment of its style of traditional, hand-drawn animation. This has less to do with the shock of watching a Studio Ghibli contemporary fairy tale told through computer animation but that Studio Ghibli shows very little feel for the medium. Couple this with Earwig and the Witch’s undercooked story and overwhelming character deficits and Studio Ghibli makes a rare stumble with Gorō Miyazaki’s belated follow up to 2011’s From Up on Poppy Hill. Based on the 2011 picture book by one of Studio Ghibli’s favorite authors, the late Diana Wynne Jones of “Howl's Moving Castle” fame, Earwig and the Witch follows the adoption of preteen orphan Erica Wigg (née Earwig) by an oddball couple, Mandrake and Bella Yaga. Unaware of how her adoptive parents figure in her past history, the initially resistance Erica decides not to run away from her new home when she excitedly learns she now lives with a wizard and a witch. But Mandrake shuts himself off from Erica—he does not like to be disturbed, as he is wont to say—and Bella Yaga treats Erica more than the hired help than a witch in training. Miyazaki, the son of Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki, offers in Earwig and the Witchan attempt by the studio to work outside its comfort zone. There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking such a risk. But the risk fails to pay off long before Earwig and the Witch’s abrupt and confusing ending. It all begins with the unexpectedly mediocre computer animation, which boasts all the indistinct aesthetic charms of an early 2000s children’s cartoon series. Which represents a visual regression for Studio Ghibli, which has long prided itself on maintaining and enhancing the dying art of hand-drawn animation. The character designs do feed into the personalities of this dysfunctional family—Erica always comes across as scheming and mischievous, Mandrake makes for an ominous presence, and Bella Yaga physically intimidates—but the lack of finesse is noticeable. Each member of the English-language voice cast suitably aligns with their character, with Taylor Paige Henderson adding brightness to Erica’s sunny deposition while concealing her inherent craftiness as necessary. Richard E. Grant is never less than curt as the perpetually irate Mandrake while veteran voice actor Vanessa Marshall adopts an appropriately bossy attitude as taskmaster Bella Yaga. Dan Stevens makes a late entrance as Bella Yaga’s familiar Thomas but does not make much of an impact despite the talking cat’s serving as an invaluable resource to Erica. Having not read Jones’ book, I do not know whether screenwriters Keiko Niwa and Emi Gunji have much to work with. But their script for Earwig and the Witch not only feels stretched out but lacking in both significant milestone events and a satisfactory ending. Erica spends most of Earwig and the Witch doing kitchen chores as she waits for the reluctant Bella Yaga to teach her magic and tries to get into Mandrake’s good graces. Oddly, there is not much magic on display until Erica forces the issues late in Earwig and the Witch. Niwa and Gunji fail to provide much insight into the combative relationship between Mandrake and Bella Yaga, which means we are never convinced that they should live under the same roof. There also is the sense that there is a subplot unfolding offscreen involving Erica’s mysterious mother, also a witch, a subplot that is only hinted at the beginning of Earwig and the Witch when she abandons her infant daughter at the orphanage. This plays into the film’s ending, which happens so fast that you do not realize the film is over into halfway through the credits. It feels like Niwa and Gunji forgot to write a third act that would tie up all loose ends, but apparently they remained faithful to the book’s ending. Which brings us to Erica. “Anybody who chooses me would be pretty unusual,” Erica tells her best friend Custard before being adopted. “But a normal family would be even worse. I’d only have 2 or 3 people to exactly what I do.” This, unfortunately, is Erica in a nutshell. Erica is a natural born survivor. Maybe she inherited this from her mother. But Erica is not about bettering her situation. She is about shifting the balance of power in her favor through pure, unadulterated manipulation. She is an expert at wrapping adults around her finger. And Earwig and the Witch shows no concern that Erica comes across as spoilt and conspiring at all times. She also is an awful best friend to Custard. Well, to be honest, Custard is more flunky than pal. How much is this a function of Erica being an orphan? How much of this is a function of Erica being Erica? Niwa and Gunji never go out of their way to make us believe that the orphan’s life has made Erica who she is. And Earwig and the Witch refuses to impart upon Erica to any significant life lessons that suggest she will not grow up to anything but self-centered and entitled. That said, it is refreshing that Earwig and the Witchis not interested in presenting its heroine as a goodie two shoes like Little Orphan Annie. If there is one unifying force in Earwig and the Witch, it is music. To say more would be to give away one of the film’s only mysteries. But Earwig and the Witch is energized by Satoshi Takebe’s terrific score that easily slides between psychedelic rock and Pink Panther-tinged smooth jazz riffs. Plus, Kacey Musgraves’ English-language version of Earwig and the Witch’s theme song, the anthemic “Don't Disturb Me,” adds some funky magic to a film missing so much of it is supposed to trade in.
Aired: Feb. 2, 2021