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▶︎ Earwig and the Witch is in UK cinemas from 28 May.
“Anybody who chose me would be pretty unusual,” admits bossy foundling Earwig about her chances of adoption. One could say the same about bringing her story to the screen – Diana Wynne Jones’s short and simple tale of a rebellious child pitting her wits against witchy adoptive parents is openly aimed at younger children, and determinedly domestic in setting.
Not such an odd choice, however, for Miyazaki Goro, seeking a small but vivid project for Studio Ghibli’s first CG feature. Beloved for its decades of hand-drawn classics, the animation powerhouse is so identified with its immersive tactile style that a previous CG outing (the same director’s 2014 TV series Ronja the Robber’s Daughter) was cel-shaded to evoke Ghibli’s careful artisanal look.
Miyazaki’s previous features – the ambitious, uneven Tales from Earthsea (2006) and the nostalgia-infused From Up on Poppy Hill (2011) – showed a strong respect for the studio’s heritage. So it’s understandable that there’s a cautious, ‘nursery slopes’ feel to Earwig and the Witch, a lively but dispiritingly run-of-the-mill TV movie made for NHK. Far from vintage Ghibli, it’s an experiment in fusing the studio’s meticulous, immersive fantasies with CG technology, and the results are as spotty as Earwig’s own attempts at magic. Adjust your expectations accordingly.
Niwa Keiko and Gunji Emi’s faithful screenplay keeps the action tightly shut up, first in Earwig’s happy orphanage, and then the creepy cottage where Bella Yaga and the demon Mandrake trap Earwig as their potion-workshop skivvy; you wonder when it will open up. Where is the sky-roving and world-jumping of Ghibli’s previous Diana Wynne Jones adaptation, the restless YA fantasy Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)? But the film’s gentle feel tips you off that its small world deliberately reflects the home-centred POV of its young child audience.
Rather than a quest, Earwig is engaged in a comic battle of wills with two adults, longing for self-determination, more Pippi Longstocking than Coraline. Her effortful magic spells serve only to nullify Bella Yaga’s magic or prank her, rather than give a Kiki’s Delivery Service apprenticeship.
An accidental pandemic resonance even emerges from Earwig’s stir-crazy confinement in the cottage, whose shape-shifting rooms and garden snare her, and where the Mandrake’s magical food deliveries resemble a demonic Deliveroo. There’s delicious, atmospheric household detail aplenty here, the one area where the animation scores highly. A fantastic, filthy workshop, sticky with accreted potions, shows off one animator’s entire year of CG modelling.
By contrast, the film’s key characters are broadly written, especially Earwig’s adopters, grotesque and selfish adults in the Roald Dahl mode. Styled as a Ghibli witch, with her wriggling blue hair, Bella Yaga (a grumpy Vanessa Marshall) is a small-time potion-pusher, in thrall to the Mandrake’s anger-prone ex-rock star. Though she is a household martinet, the magical worms she often threatens turn out to be cute wrigglers rather than Princess Mononoke hell parasites. On the other hand, Richard E. Grant’s growly voicework in the English dub gives the Mandrake a terrifying yet wounded aspect. When, enraged, he bursts into a towering flaming figure, you long, fruitlessly, for his scenes to erupt into full-fledged Ghibli terror. But he’s endlessly outwitted by Earwig, voiced by newcomer Taylor Paige Henderson with one-note energy. An indefatigable manipulator, Earwig uses the flattery and insincerity she perfected on the orphanage Matron to try and bend her new adults to her will. In a rather un-Ghibli way, she learns nothing from adversity except that fearless wheedling and plotting work eventually. Her cheeky but slightly irritating mien is underlined by the sheeny, plasticised CG animation, her face skidding from one exaggerated grimace to another, Hotel Transylvania-style.
Though Goro took inspiration from the Laika/Aardman stop-motion puppet aesthetic for his character animations, the smooth doll-like faces and stiff posture give them all a distinct ‘uncanny valley’ vibe. Without its own expressive or distinctive look, the CG animation is disappointingly generic, lacking the thoughtful, authored feel that was always a Ghibli given.
The other surprise is the film’s failure to expand on the dark and tantalising subplot about Earwig’s absent mother, a witch on the run whose flashback story comes wrapped in an intriguing Kacey Musgraves rock ditty called ‘Don’t Disturb Me’. A little more disturbance would have been just the thing.
Drawing ahead: Suzuki Toshio on the future of Studio Ghibli
With Miyazaki Hayao working on a new feature, his son Goro set to release Earwig and the Witch, and big streaming deals on its back catalogue, Japan’s animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli is in rude health. Its co-founder and mastermind tells us how he has kept it relevant in a world of changing tastes.
By Alex Dudok de Wit
Sight & Sound June 2021
In our current issue, Mark Kermode and Prano Bailey–Bond talk Censor and the 80s British censorship massacre. Read if you dare! Plus the history of ‘video nasties’, Kelly Reichardt on First Cow, Suzanne Lindon’s Spring Blossom, the sprawling brilliance of Robert Altman’s Nashville, and vintage Jack Nicholson. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy