Review: Earwig and the Witch

Director: Gorô Miyazaki

English Voice Dub Stars: Kacey Musgraves, Taylor Henderson, Vanessa Marshall

Poor Gorô Miyazaki. It’s not easy being the son of one of the most gifted living directors of animated features, especially when you decide to walk the same path. That’s one hell of a shadow to step out of. Not only that, but his features so far have been treated a little unkindly. Tales from Earthsea may lack coherence, but its very strangeness marks it out in the Ghibli stall as inherently interesting. It’s follow-up, From Up on Poppy Hill, is comfortably one of the studio’s better ‘grounded’ efforts and deserves mid-tier placing at least. The ire felt seems excessive.

Not making things any easier on himself, our Gorô has forged ahead with what stands clearly as the most contentious Studio Ghibli film to date; the first furtive steps into CG animation for a company whose hand-drawn delicacy has become very much part of the brand. Early glimpses were not greeted well. Rumour has it that even Papa Hayao himself walked out of some test viewing or other.

The thing is, risk taking and reinvention isn’t new to Ghibli, and so the fuss here seems a little overheated. Co-founder Isao Takahata applied radically different styles for offerings like My Neighbours the Yamadas and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. The adjustment itself shouldn’t be too hard to accept.

Perhaps its how its been deployed.

Earwig and the Witch adapts Diana Wynne Jones’ story of the same name for the screen; the tale of an infant girl, Earwig, abandoned on the steps of an orphanage by her mysterious mother. Renamed Erica by the matron, she spends years at the facility before being adopted by a seemingly villainous couple. Bella Yaga is a witch, and outspoken about it. Her cohort – who goes by the name ‘The Mandrake’ – might literally be the devil. They all live together in a nice little cottage in the English countryside.

There are many Ghibli staples present here already; enough that it might even be considered ‘obvious’ or cliché. Precocious girls. Witches. Tricksy houses with hidden rooms and cute little sprites flying around the margins. A talking cat. A lot of this is Ghibli 101. Get passed the presentation and we’re in familiar territory, at least in theory.

But, it has to be said, these first dalliances with CG animation aren’t wholly finessed. Granted, when it comes to backgrounds and objects, Gorô and his team have worked their own magic, digitally fleshing out the studio’s trademark style and watercolour charm. The flesh and blood characters, meanwhile, feel queasily stiff and robotic. Earwig’s own eyebrows are genuinely a little menacing. Still, even these are faithful to the design styles that Ghibli is known for and certainly mark a welcome respite from the crudely warped facial shapes offered by nearly every American equivalent.

When the story makes moves into the fantastic later on, the CG really comes alive. I’m thinking especially of a psychedelic sequence in which The Mandrake swallows up the screen and the film’s mid-20th century vibe comes alive with glam and prog-rock influences. The Mandrake’s transformation is positively terrifying. While it might frighten younger, sensitive viewers, it is at least in line with the eerie horror mechanics that Gorô and his team are playing with. By turns it seems as though Earwig fondly tips its hat to both Suspiria and Phantom of the Paradise. Pretty cool touchstones indeed.

Allow me to make another, more obscure connection; Rebecca Thomas’ 2012 indie Electrick Children – a minor gem in which a Mormon youth (Julie Garner) comes to believe she has been impregnated by listening to a rock ‘n’ roll song on a tape. Improbably, Earwig and the Witch connects spiritually to Thomas’ film, particularly in the codification of cassettes as a conduit to coming-of-age revelations.

So the occasionally clunky CG can be forgiven. In the main, Earwig is an involving little treat, even a delight. With regards to the English dub, Taylor Henderson’s work as the titular girl conjures a sense of a young Daisy Ridley taking on Rey. And though generally relegated, Richard E Grant seems to be having some fun with The Mandrake. Points, also, for the film’s keenness to romanticise English food. Fried bread and shepherd’s pie are made to seem positively mouthwatering. If there’s genuine magic here it’s in these foodie persuasions.

Harder to forgive, however, is the film’s ending.

What initially seems to be the transition into a third act turns out to be a disarmingly truncated epilogue. Ending on a cliffhanger, Earwig and the Witch smashes to credits in a manner totally at odds with the gentleness that the rest of the movie maintains. It’s jarring and wholly unsatisfying, giving the impression less of a rounded film than a TV pilot for a prospective serial. Nothing is resolved; characters seeded at the beginning and mentioned throughout never return. Kacey Musgraves’ end theme stomp feels like a smart slap in the face. It’s almost as if Gorô and his team ran out of money, or simply ran out of interest. Earwig is frustratingly unfinished; a thorn in its side that only cuts deeper the longer it is left to fester.

So, ultimately, this one is a failure, but not for the reasons you might’ve assumed. Perhaps distracted by wrapping their heads around new technology, the creative minds at work here took their eye off the more basic building block of Ghibli’s reputation; beautifully crafted storytelling. On this front, Earwig and the Witch trips over and knocks itself out on the pavement.

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