Any new Studio Ghibli production is bound to be met with incredibly high expectations due to their phenomenal output over the past three decades. But even if a new feature arrived peppered with blemishes in pivotal areas i.e. script, characters, arcs and direction, one would still expect to see their incomparable style, surrealism and quirky characters present, which make up such a huge part of why we fell in love with them in the first place.
Sadly, in the case of their latest, Earwig and the Witch, these qualities are scarce to the point of seeming non-existent. The film also falls short in the aforementioned areas (script, characters, arcs and direction) making it below par by any standard, and Ghibli in name only, despite being directed by Goro Miyazaki (From Up on Poppy Hill, Tales From Earthsea) and produced by Studio Ghibli co-founder Toshio Suzuki.
The script, based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones (Howl’s Moving Castle), flows well for the first half; introducing us to a baby girl abandoned by a biker on the doorstop of the St Morwald’s Home for Children. With nothing but an audio cassette inscribed with “Earwig” on her person, the child is taken in by the orphanage and renamed Erica Wig. A decade or so later, an older, feistier Erica is adopted by a big hat wearing, blue haired woman called Bella, and her gangly, bohemian cohort, Mandrake.
After moving out of St Morwald’s and into Bella’s country home, Erica learns that her new foster mother is a witch. She is then forced into child labour with the understanding that Bella will school her in the art of witchcraft, but when Bella refuses, Erica decides to track down the hidden incantations, and teach herself.
Despite an airy spirit, Earwig and the Witch is persistently hindered by lustreless, un-Ghibli-like animation: the kind of bland, generically rendered 3D CG (a first for the studio) which feels generated at the tap of a button, and the type you’d expect to see on Saturday morning TV cartoons. This style is further augmented by a gratingly chirpy guitar rock score which partially shifts to incorporate different instrument-led pieces. While admirably exploratory, the tunes seem constantly uncomplimentary to what’s happening on screen.
There’s a steady structural collapse from the mid-point on due to a lack of plot propulsion, as Erica’s desire to learn witchcraft isn’t presented as potent enough an incentive for the viewer to truly care about. This is also due to the fact that the protagonist doesn’t seem particularly threatened by her foster parent/captors or predicament, which she appears more irked by than afraid of, resulting in a dramatic conflict drought.
The film features components which, on paper, one would associate with earlier Ghibli classics (i.e. children, witches and oddball creatures) but here they’re insipidly rendered embodiments, lacking classic Ghibli traits and foibles. Bella and Mandrake slightly recall characters from earlier SG works but seem cut from templates and partially modified, but Mandrake’s penchant for pub grub and Stoke on Trent train station pies is amusing. Meanwhile, Erica and supporting characters are crafted with few memorable distinguishing features, compared to those born from the classic Ghibli palette.
The plot crumbles as it edges slovenly towards a gawkily crowbarred conclusion, but on the whole, Earwig and the Witch is mostly far from terrible. Younger viewers should be kept pacified, if not enthralled, for the better part, but older fans might be disappointed due to the lack of classic Ghibli facets, and structural/character defects.