June 14, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

‘Earwig and the Witch’ review: Studio Ghibli tries 3DCG

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

Eager to learn how to concoct magic potions and spells, the scoundrel in “Earwig and the Witch” must win over her monstrous adoptive parents. Studio Ghibli’s generally subpar first foray into 3DCG feature animation is an adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’ British children’s book directed by the cofounder’s son Gorô Miyazaki (“From Up on Poppy Hill”).

Contained in scope and slim in dramatic depth, the movie (originally made for Japanese television) hinges on a mischievous girl with horn-like ponytails, Earwig, a.k.a. Ericka (Taylor Henderson). Despite her efforts to remain at the orphanage where she’s been since infancy, she is taken in as “an extra pair of hands” by Bella Yaga (Vanessa Marshall), a grumpy witch, and the Mandrake (Richard E. Grant), a humanoid creature and prolific writer.

Hard to intimidate, she befriends opinionated talking cat Thomas (Dan Stevens) to engage in whimsical antics. Making sure that Earwig comes across as a young heroine with devious intentions to bend adults to her will and not a helpless victim of her bad-tempered caretakers, is one of Miyazaki’s successes here.

Although there’s plenty of offbeat humor derived from the warped domesticity of this household where flying demons serve breakfast, the plot is slight in conflict and the resolution oddly abrupt. While these structural issues might come from the source material, they make for a contrived film. A subplot set in the past involving a rock band, in which country singer Kacey Musgraves voices Earwig’s mother, remains undeveloped.

Visually, the transmutation from the hand-drawn artistry the famed animation house has mastered into figures with tridimensional volume comes with a tad of awkward rigidness particularly in the character design. Still, flaws and all, humans here at least have style recognizable from 2D anime and manga, as opposed to the mostly homogenous look of animated people in most American studio fare. The textures in the backgrounds and elaborate production design do better at retaining the intricacy typical in their films.

Given Ghibli is held to a higher standard, the outcome of this entirely computerized experiment lacks the aesthetic and thematic finesse of most productions in its catalog. Yet, if pitted against other entertainment aimed at young viewers with much less panache, “Earwig and the Witch” wins, at least in conceptual adventurousness. Even if far from being top-tier Ghibli, it’s not without its fantastical pleasures.

‘Earwig and the Witch’

In English; also available in Japanese with subtitles

Rated: PG, for some scary images and rude material

Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes

Playing: In limited release where theaters are opens; available Feb. 5 on HBO Max