Earwig and the Witch is the first fully-CGI animated film from Studio Ghibli. Except it kind of isn’t since it’s actually a feature length TV special commissioned by NHK that has received a theatrical release more recently. It’s… an interesting experiment, but more on that later.
Set in generic a semi-rural English town in the ’90s, Earwig and the Witch is a reasonably condensed story. Erica was left at an orphanage as a baby but managed to turn the situation to her favour despite the turbulent environment (which thankfully isn’t quite as traumatic as a certain other production). One day a visiting couple pop in as part of the orphanage’s regular adoption program and decides that Erica would be a great fit for them. The twist is that the couple are after an extra pair of hands to help the pseudo-mother figure, Bella Yaga, who is a highly active witch servicing the local community. Being a spirited, sassy young girl, Erica decides this is all rather awesome and wants to learn magic as part of the deal, a proposition Bella Yaga strongly opposes. The two continue to clash until things get out of control before resolving at least a few of the outstanding elements of the story (more on that below as well).
To say that Earwig and the Witch is getting a lot of hate online wouldn’t be in inaccurate to rest on. Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic both suggest there isn’t a lot of love for Goro Miyazaki’s latest production, with some particularly scathing reviews from Engaget and The Guardian, while others like Empire hold a less savage position on the film’s merits.
The issues generally rest on two areas – as a CG production this presents a challenge to translating Studio Ghibli’s signature hand-drawn animation into a whole new medium, with the added bonus of competing against 25 years of rapid development in fully CG-produced theatrical features from Pixar, Disney, Dreamworks and Illumination.
The other criticism rests on the story and its characters, with the story feeling a bit shallow, incomplete and lacking a likeable protagonist.
While I agree this isn’t the best we’ve seen from Studio Ghibli, I do think it has its merits.
On the animation production side of things, there are moments where the quality of the work shines through – the outdoor shots of the town are often gorgeous, though far too static for a CG production, which makes sense when it was revealed a number of the outdoor shots’ CG were touched up by hand using more traditional hand drawn techniques. Some of the psychedelic sequences are also great, and the little helper demons and food look quite accomplished too.
Character animation’s a little up and down – sometimes it looks great, but often comes off as stilted. The camera suffers the same issues too, and those cases where it does a robotic pan from point A to point B with no easing at either end hurts a bit.
It’s absolutely a far cry from something produced using Ghibli’s hand drawn animation standards, something that becomes very obvious if you watch the storyboard overlay for the film, same with the cute hand-drawn artwork in the credit sequence.
To me, what I did enjoy was that Miyazaki (Jnr) decided to go whole hog with the 3D CG and not try to mimic hand-drawn animation alla Human Lost, which would have resulted in the whole thing becoming an in-game cut scene.
The story too feels a little meandering without the kind of sharp focus or expansive journey you’d normally expect, and compared to other tales of European witchery Ghibli have tackled before, it ends abruptly and leaves a lot of questions unanswered and potential untapped.
There also seems to be a lot of negativity around the main cast themselves and the use of a prog rock thematic element tying the pieces together. True, the musical themes are very different to what Joe Hisaishi would lend to a Ghibli film, but I felt it was a fun touch for Miyazaki to tap into his interest in the shifting sands of 70s rock (and his interest in progressive rock in particular) for that part of the story.
I also thought the film’s proverbial quartet made for some fun, silly and on occasion heart-warming moments, at least based on the Japanese version – with the lip sync issues I found watching the dub came off a bit more awkward than usual, but that’s my preference I guess. Erica’s manipulative, but she has an inner fire and determination that’s admirable, and at times endearing. Bella Yaga often comes off as downright mean, but the way she develops over time hints at a character with a little more depth than first appears, though it could have done with some more time to explore this.
The Mandrake’s good fun though – Erica’s erosion of his grumpy exterior shows there’s still some Ghibli magic in here despite what appears at first glance, and Thomas provides some nice comic relief.
But despite the best of these intentions, Earwig and the Witch suffers from lacking the finesse of a traditional Ghibli production, a highly ramped-up and fleshed-out in-house CGI animation team and a budget to do the film justice. It’s an important and interesting experiment though, but one that hopefully won’t signal the death of Ghibli’s iconic artistry which it has worked for so long to put it as one of the best animation studios in the world.
For the local release we have a repackaged version of the GKIDS Region A Blu-Ray release. Video quality is great with an excellent bitrate and the audio is solid, at least in Japanese – the English dub is fine technically of course, but certainly not my preferred viewing choice. The extras on the disc are great though – Toshio Suzuki talks at length and quite candidly on being hands-off with the production to let Goro explore his vision, and Goro in turn speaks at length to the ideas and themes that resulted in Earwig and the Witch. We also get an insight into the animation production, and it was good to see the team speak openly about the distributed production model, the lack of in-house talent in Ghibli and the challenges moving into the CGI space.
The best extra though is the full length storyboards overlaid against the audio track. I’ve sampled these in past Ghibli films but I found myself rewatching large parts of Earwig and the Witch in storyboard mode just to see all the great character art that hints at what might have happened if this was a hand-drawn production.
Earwig and the Witch is very much a mixed bag – an interesting experiment with unrealised potential, even. I don’t think it’s worth dismissing outright, but it is important to set your expectations to suit.
A review copy was provided by Madman Entertainment to the author for the purpose of this review.