I’m sure some of us have run into those people that have said, “Yeah, I’m not really into anime. But I love those Studio Ghibli films.” That’s how universal their films are.
For those of you who may not know, Studio Ghibli is an animation studio based in Tokyo, Japan. They are known for such award-winning and/or critically acclaimed films as Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and My Neighbor Totoro, my personal favorite being Princess Mononoke. They are widely known for popularizing the art of 2-D Japanese anime in western culture. However, with their latest release on HBO Max, the anime pioneering studio decided to go in a different direction with Earwig and the Witch, Studio Ghibli’s first full-length release in four years.
Personally, I don’t have a problem with Studio Ghibli trying out CGI in their films. If done right, you can do some really cool and interesting things with computer animation without it seeming boring or unoriginal. And knowing their expertise in 2-D animation, I was very excited and expectant about what they could do with the medium.
Unfortunately, with Earwig and the Witch, it seems that Studio Ghibli has underperformed, especially when compared to their previous films. However, the animation surprisingly has very little to do with how disappointing this film is.
Based on a book of the same title by Diana Wynne Jones, Earwig and the Witch tells the story of a British orphan girl named Earwig, whose name is changed to Erica by her matrons. Reasonable enough. She’s strong-willed and doesn’t want to leave the orphanage or her friend Custard, who is also a very unfortunately named child. But of course, the universe has other plans for her and a strange couple arrives at the orphanage, adopts Earwig, and takes her home with them. Earwig quickly learns that the woman who adopted her, Bella Yaga, is a witch who only wanted to use Earwig as an extra hand around the house. Immediately intrigued, Earwig agrees to help Bella as long as Bella agrees to teach her everything she knows about magic. Bella agrees. But after weeks and weeks of working and not learning anything about magic, Earwig soon realizes that she is being taken advantage of.
I wish I could say that Earwig then devises a plan of escaping from such terrible people and trying to find her real parents. But that’s unfortunately not the case, which brings attention to this film’s biggest problems: plot and character development.
Eighty to ninety percent of this film seems to take place in this small house that Earwig is seemingly “imprisoned” in. You’d think that our main character would have ambitions of trying to escape or something like that. But throughout most of the film, she’s wasting time trying to get Bella to teach her magic, trying to prank Bella with silly spells, or trying to get people to do what she wants them to do. In fact, that seems to be her main motivation: getting Bella and her husband, Mandrake, to do what she wants. She doesn’t even want to leave. Thus, the story wastes too much time stuck in this house.
There are even interesting things about Earwig’s background that are never explored thoroughly enough mostly because Earwig doesn’t seem interested in exploring them. Who is her mother? Is she a witch, too? Are Bella and Mandrake related to her past in any way? Even when we do finally start to get some answers, it’s like the film doesn’t treat them as important and the film ends abruptly. And just when things were starting to get good!
There’s no development with our main character either. At the beginning of the film, she starts out as a headstrong child who wants to get everyone to do what she wants. She even admits it to herself! So you think, “Oh, I guess this is going to be her character arc. That she’ll learn to be humble and want to help others. Or maybe she’ll learn that the reason she’s such a brat is that she wishes she had a mom or something like that.” Nope! Spoiler alert! She goes from being a brat who wants to get everyone to do what she wants to being… a girl who gets everyone to do what she wants. No development at all. She doesn’t learn anything about herself and she doesn’t change anything about herself.
And it’s weird because I actually wanted to like Earwig. She had a spunky attitude that reminded me of the titular character from Coraline. But unlike Coraline, Earwig does not learn how to start caring about people other than herself. That makes for a bad protagonist and, therefore, ruins what could be an interesting story.
And to make matters worse, the animation carrying this story is nothing to speak home of. And I feel bad because, apparently, the team that worked on this film really knew nothing about CGI animation and was learning on the fly. It’s just hard not to think that this could’ve been avoided. There are elements of good animation hidden somewhere in this film. But you’d think that the world-famous studio behind Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke would produce something that looked better than a better-animated episode of Jimmy Neutron. (That may be a little harsh. But I’m sticking with that comparison.)
But it really is more of a story thing than an animation thing for me, surprisingly enough. Because honestly, I was kind of intrigued by the setup and the characters in the film for the first ten minutes or so. But I slowly lost interest as I realized the story wasn’t going anywhere and the characters weren’t relatable. And this is sad since Studio Ghibli has a great track record of creating characters in films that welcome you along their journey throughout the story. Characters like Chihiro from Spirited Away, Ashitaka from Princess Mononoke, or Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle are all interesting and relatable characters that you want to root for and see them accomplish their goals. And none of that is found in Earwig and the Witch.
Apparently, the author of the book Earwig and the Witch was also the author of the book that Howl’s Moving Castle was based on. I guess she was a famous author that very heavily inspired writers like Neil Gaiman and J.K. Rowling. I don’t know how close this movie is to its source material. Same for Howl’s Moving Castle. But assuming that they are both pretty close, it’s pretty hard to believe that they both came from the same mind, Howl’s Moving Castle having a far superior story.
See this movie if you’re a huge Studio Ghibli fan and just want to check it off your list. But just know that it’s going to disappoint you.