Film review: ‘EARWIG AND THE WITCH’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Six years after what was believed to be beloved Japanese filmmaker Studio Ghibli’s swansong, the wonderful When Marnie Was There, comes a new offering, Earwig and The Witch.  While at times evoking a number of the studio’s classics, this meandering film is unlikely to satiate the cravings of Ghibli obsessives who have desperately awaited the studio’s return to production.

What many will first notice about this animated fantasy is that, rather than being hand drawn in the much-loved Ghibli house style, this is computer animated.  Consequently, the characters have the plastic look of Pixar film creatures and the backgrounds are hyperreal rather than having the definitive Studio Ghibli watercolour look.   While, the animation is technically brilliant, it badly lacks the warmth and mystery of classic Ghibli films.

Directed by Goro Miyazaki son of famed studio co-founder Hayao Miyazaki, the film was actually created for Japanese TV.  It seems to be the first instalment in a series which unfortunately means it lacks a complete story and will irritate movie-goers who want closure in their films.

While there are several concerns for long-time Ghibli fans, they should feel a sense of satisfying familiarity in Earwig’s plot and themes as it taps into various famed Ghibli productions like Spirited Away and Kiki’s Delivery Service.  Like those and many of the studio’s previous films, the plot centres around a feisty and precocious tween girl trying to find her place in the world.  Here, Earwig who was left on the doorstep of an orphanage as a baby by her witch mother and has since become the whip-smart top dog among the orphanage children, is unexpectedly chosen to live with a strange childless couple.  She discovers her imposing adoptive mother, Bella Yaga, is a witch who really wants a child as a servant to do all the unpleasant household chores.  Her adoptive father is a tall, brooding, pointy-eared goblin-like character who demands not to be disturbed.  Not one to buckle under authority, Earwig defies Bella’s tyranny while secretly trying to develop her own skills as a witch.  In the process of researching the magical arts she finds clues that may lead to her uncovering her family background.

Like Spirited Away, much of the film focuses on Earwig’s slave-like working conditions.  The character-defining value but also oppressiveness of work are common Ghibli themes.  Also, in typical Ghibli style, the film focuses on the child’s imagination, resourcefulness and attempts to cope with her situation.  Unfortunately, as Earwig lacks the vulnerability of most Ghibli heroines – she’s completely unfazed even when confronted by furious witches and demons – she doesn’t connect as powerfully on an emotional level as the studio’s other young females.

Like many Japanese animated films, Earwig’s tone and rhythm are different to those of Hollywood animations.  The Japanese films tend to focus on the minutia of everyday life and strange little plot tangents that would be ignored in, for example, Pixar films.  This approach has almost always been a blessing in Ghibli films although here the diversions and leap-frogging between oddball set pieces tends to make the film disjointed.

Being a studio Ghibli film there is inevitably plenty to admire and enjoy but this oddly formed film is a lesser work from one of the titans of contemporary popular culture.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Animated fantasy.

Classification: PG.

Director(s): Gor? Miyazaki.

Release date: 4th Feb 2021.

Running time: 82 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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