Earwig and the Witch opens with a familiar scene. An old Citroën races down the road, immediately invoking Hayao Miyazaki’s 1979 anime The Castle of Cagliostro. But here, the Citroën 2CV is yellow and in hot pursuit, with its grill turning into needle-like teeth, barreling towards a woman with curly red hair escaping on a motorcycle.
Warning: This review contains some spoilers.
Based on the book by the same name, Earwig and the Witch tells the story of a young girl, Earwig, left at an orphanage by her witch mother, only to find herself adopted by another witch and her wizard companion. Earwig had the run of the orphanage with everyone listening to her whims, but she finds herself under the thumb of her new guardians, spending her days in a locked house, unable to escape, and forced to make magic potions.
Earwig and the Witch is Studio Ghibli’s first full-length CG animated feature. Directed by Goro Miyazaki (From Up on Poppy Hill), Hayao Miyazaki’s son, the movie might be a departure tech-wise, but thematically and stylistic, it’s within the studio’s wheelhouse. There’s the young girl protagonist, and the movie seems set in a bygone era with a mix of fantasy and reality.
There are specific nods to Ghibli, especially My Neighbour Totoro, including bat-like demons that use leaves for umbrellas, and a closing credit sequence features doodles that, as in Totoro, show the events that transpire after the movie’s end.
The CG doesn’t stop it from feeling like a Ghibli film. The character animations are well-executed to suit. When outside, the landscapes and the skies look painterly, recalling the studio’s previous efforts, while the interiors and the depiction of food have that signature Ghibli look. There are all these little details on stones, wood, and the interiors — to the point where sometimes it feels like there was more interest in them than the characters.
Sure, the characters themselves also “look Ghibli,” but unlike the cell-shaded depiction of the studio’s style in Ni no Kuni, trying to achieve the kind of undefined clumpy hair the studio’s hand-drawn characters have makes their locks look like Play-Doh in CG. Some of the fabrics also look off, but generally, for a first effort, there’s a lot that’s commendable, especially because Earwig and the Witch does not ape Pixar. With more experience, the studio will definitely hone its own CG style.
Once I got past the initial, oh, this is a computerised Ghibli movie, it was less the CG animation that stuck out and more other things, especially the music. Joe Hisaishi is sorely missed (Yumi Matsutoya would have also been a welcome addition). Goro Miyazaki pulled double duty, co-contributing to the opening and closing themes, which are ok. They’re fine. Satoshi Takebe’s score for the rest of the picture, however, is all over the place, and his take on classic rock doesn’t quite work, either. Music is key in this movie, and given Ghibli music is often excellent, hearing a bland score was a let-down.
Released as a TV movie in Japan, this is not a big film. It’s short. It’s subtle. Not much happens. It depicts an enclosed, often boring world. The windows to Earwig’s room are painted shut, the front door is prone to vanish, and a magic spell prevents her from escaping via the garden. She doesn’t go to school, and her days are spent being put to work counting newt eyes, slicing snake skins, and grinding rat bones. It’s dull, thankless work.
At one point in the movie, I wondered if Earwig had Stockholm Syndrome. She wants to learn magic, but her witch guardian just wants her to do mindless work. There is cruelty, but also small gestures of kindness, which in Earwig’s small world seem much larger.
But Earwig doesn’t let this get her down, and she stays largely upbeat throughout. She’s trying to make the best of a less than ideal situation, and in the end does just that. As I was watching it, I was immediately reminded of what life is like right now. We might be at home, staying inside, and not much is happening. Some days are dull, and folks are just doing their best to make it through the day.
Earwig and the Witch never reaches the emotional pitch of Ghibli’s best, nor does the lead have much of a character arc, and while the big reveal at the end falls flat, it does sync with the past year in a way that few of the studio’s movies have.
At times the movie feels like an exercise — a proof of concept or a roadmap, even, for how the world of Studio Ghibli can make the leap from hand-drawn animation to CG. I don’t think Studio Ghibli will ever abandon pencil, ink, and paper. Yet this movie, in particular, makes for a fascinating contrast. Even with the new technology, this still feels like a Ghibli film. It’s also attempting to make a break with the past in the name of progress, and for that, I appreciate the effort.
In the movie’s opening scene, the menacing yellow Citroen doesn’t only feel like a reference to The Castle of Cagliostro, Hayao Miyazaki’s seminal feature, but also the car he drives in real life. While Earwig and the Witch embraces Studio Ghibli, his son is trying to continue forward, but the specter of his father looms large, always on his heels, chomping away. This is not a great Ghibli film. It doesn’t have to be. That’s not the point. It is a bridge to the future and a good one at that.
Earwig and the Witch opens at select theatres in the U.S. on February 3.