By Leah McDonald / February 2nd, 2021
Witches are a fascinating concept. There are no shortage of interpretations on their history, purpose, and lore, and there are so many stories you can tell about them. Studio Ghibli has, famously, animated one of the most recognizable witches and with Earwig and the Witch, they’ve set out to do so again, only this time without hand-drawn animation. The feature-length anime marks the first time in the studio’s storied history that it eschewed time-honored animation methods and instead embraced 3D CGI. For the most part, I think they really hit it out of the park. Developed by Hayao Miyazaki and directed by his son Goro, this is the second such arrangement by the pair at Studio Ghibli following From Up on Poppy Hill.
Originally written by Diana Wynne Jones (of Howl’s Moving Castle fame, which Studio Ghibli also animated), the film begins when the titular Earwig is left at an orphanage by her witch mother who is running from her coven. With a simple note saying it could take years for her to return, Earwig’s mother vanishes into the night, and the child is left with the kind Matron of the orphanage, who names her Erica Wigg. (Earwigs are too awful to name a child after, you see.) Cut about 10 years into the future (the time lapse isn’t specified), and Earwig is leader of the pack at the orphanage, bossing around not only the other children, but the adults as well — that is, of course, until she catches the interest of witch Bella Yaga and the Mandrake, who whisk her off into a world of magic and music.
Since it’s going to be the aspect of this movie I think most people are interested in: Yes, the animation is gorgeous. It’s fluid and expressive with a color palette that absolutely pops. Going with 3D CGI rather than traditional 2D animation has some limits, especially in how fabrics move, but it more than made up for those handicaps through texture. The characters remind me of a cross between stop-motion clay and dolls, but with impressively expressive faces. There were times it felt like a Tim Burton film minus the macabre. While I did miss the studio’s iconic weightless surprise faces, the animators really leaned into giving everyone, Earwig especially, some of the best facial expressions. Using CGI also gave a more viscous and slimy feel to a lot of the magic ingredients found in the movie and really sold the nasty, smelly aspects of witchcraft that I’m not sure traditional animation could have captured quite as well. For the most part, I also really liked the character designs, done by illustrator Miho Satake. Earwig’s “horns” looked fantastic, and as mentioned, her expressions were top notch. Her design was simple enough to make her easy to animate bouncing about and scurrying around like a child would, but striking enough to be memorable. While large heads are a staple of child character designs — and Ghibli characters as a whole — they didn’t always work with the CGI, giving the characters a more bobble-head feel that I found a little off-putting. It was less an issue with Bella Yaga and the Mandrake, whose designs really popped.
Where the animation and art direction didn’t really work for me was in the magic itself. Unlike movies like Kiki’s Delivery Service or Spirited Away, or even Howl’s Moving Castle, the magic in Earwig was rarely present. Earwig helped Bella Yaga make spells, and she spent plenty of time in the brew room and trying her hand at spellcasting herself, but the magic always felt like a plot point rather than a living aspect of the environment. Studio Ghibli has always excelled at capturing whimsy on screen, and even their movies that have nothing to do with magic feel magical in the ways the world is animated. With Earwig, I never felt that sense of wonder at what was happening. There’s a point in the film where Earwig actually casts a spell but rather than see it, we only hear reactions to it off-screen, and then stumble in on the aftermath. It felt like a wasted opportunity. The movie also lacks the studio’s classic quiet moments where the environment is just allowed to exist and immerse the audience in this world. It would have been nice to have a better sense of the world in which Earwig lives, especially considering how much I loved the design of the witch’s house.
One of the major plot points in the film revolves around music, and for a movie so integrally tied to the medium, it was a bit of a mixed bag. I actually really liked the soundtrack — all thumping mid-’90s electronic rock and jazz fusion with a bit of gospel keyboard — but it never really fit into the scenes in which it played. For every scene where it worked, the next it felt overbearing or out of place. The score was composed by Satoshi Takebe, and it’s fun, groovy, and loud, but it never really has any softer moments. Earwig is a precocious, intelligent, and energetic child, so the music fits her, but it also ends up feeling like too much by the end. For the English language version of the film, the theme song “Don’t Disturb Me,” originally sung by Sherina Munaf, was dubbed and sang by Kacey Musgraves, who does a fine job but whose performance just didn’t quite resonate with me.
Speaking of the voices, they were overall pretty well done. I watched both the Japanese and English language versions, and putting all my cards on the table, I am heavily biased toward original language casts. That being said, both Kokoro Hirasawa and Taylor Paige Henderson did really good work as Earwig, as did Gaku Hamada and Dan Stevens as Thomas the cat, and Etsushi Toyokawa and Richard Grant as the Mandrake. Unfortunately, the English language track never seemed to sync up properly with the animation, which was distracting. I also don’t know if this was a case of localization on the part of the Japanese script, but Earwig is clearly called “Aaya” in Japanese but referred to in the subtitles as both “Earwig” and “Erica”. Having not read the original book on which it’s based, I can’t definitively say which is correct, though I suspect this could be a hold-over from when the book was originally translated into Japanese.
Studio Ghibli has always had the uncanny ability to bring fantastic worlds to life through the power of hand-drawn animation, and for the first time, the studio has taken a crack at doing the same for 3D CGI, to mostly successful ends. The animation is fluid and fun, the characters engaging. While some aspects of the movie didn’t completely coalesce for me, I overall enjoyed my time with Earwig and the Witch basically up until the ending, when the film went from a pretty decently paced affair to suddenly feeling like an extended seasonal anime opening rather than a standalone product. Considering the movie was originally designed to air on NHK, this might have been deliberate, but it ended up leaving me feeling like I’d missed something crucial. Still, if for no other reason than the novelty of seeing the most stalwart 2D studio in the world take a dabble with 3D CGI, I think Earwig and the Witch is worth a shot. Maybe you’ll find more magic in it than I did.
Earwig and the Witch will be available in both Japanese and English languages in the United States beginning Feb. 3, 2021. You can find a movie theater screening near you or watch it streaming on HBO Max.
3D animationEarwig and the WitchGKIDS FilmsGoro MiyazakiHayao MiyazakiStudio Ghibli