Well, it finally happened. As the rest of the world moved on, it was sadly inevitable that Studio Ghibli — the last great bastion of 2D hand-drawn animation — finally moved into the 21st century and made a CGI feature. And I’ve got to be honest, I don’t hate it.
Even though Earwig and the Witch was clearly made with CGI animation, the filmmakers were good enough to avoid anything approaching photorealism. Indeed, the characters all look exactly like someone took a Miyazaki portfolio and rendered the drawings in Unreal 3. As a direct result, the crudely animated characters almost look more like sculpted figures — there’s something about it that maintains the same kind of spirit as the crudely hand-made yet lovingly detailed aesthetic that Ghibli is so beloved for.
But what’s crazier is that the poses, the expressions, the mouth movements, the gestures… there are so many little quirks that are immediately recognizable as part of the Ghibli canon, except that they move a lot smoother. Imagine if Miyazaki-san made his earlier 2D animated works at a higher framerate, that’s pretty much what the effect is like.
So no, I honestly don’t hate this new approach for Studio Ghibli. The movie looks just fine. But the story… whoo boy.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Earwig (voiced in the English dub by newcomer Taylor Henderson) is unknowingly the daughter of a witch (voiced by Kacey Musgraves), who left young Earwig at the door of an orphanage when she was only an infant. So our young protagonist spends her first few years in the orphanage until she’s finally adopted by the witch Bella Yaga (Vanessa Marshall) and the vaguely demonic Mandrake (Richard E. Grant). Though Earwig is resistant to move out (*coughRefusalOfTheCallcough*), she moves into the enchanted house of her new foster parents. Earwig is then forced to work like a slave, gathering and preparing various potion ingredients while she begs to learn magic from Bella Yaga.
(Side note: Yes, Earwig’s unusual name does get an explanation. No, I’m not getting into that here.)
Yeah, this is a straightforward, no-frills, boilerplate fantasy Monomyth that’s been done to death a million times over. And that might not necessarily be a bad thing, except that the filmmakers bungle it beyond repair.
First of all, the pacing is hopelessly out of whack. It’s an 82-minute movie that needed at least 100 minutes to properly tell the story. I could swear I got whiplash from how quickly the filmmakers rushed through the last five minutes of the film, resolving every last plot thread all nice and tidy by any means necessary.
And what really sucks about the ending is that this was the payoff for all the setup. The part where Earwig and her adoptive parents learn how to be a healthy foster family, the part where Earwig learns how to live in this new magical world, the part where she learns about her heritage, the part where Bella Yaga and The Mandrake learn how to live and act as semi-functional people… all of that stuff is barely even glossed over as it all gets crunched into the last five minutes. It’s the whole point of the plot, what the first and second acts were all building up to, and the filmmakers barely even address it. FAIL.
The entire plot is structured in such a way that Earwig goes through most of the film as a put-upon slave, subject to inhumane working conditions and constant verbal abuse at the cruel whim of Bella Yaga. Earwig suffers all the hardship, she fights her way through it, and we don’t get to share in her reward. As a direct result, the film is robbed of its wonder.
To repeat that: There’s no sense of wonder here. In a Studio Ghibli film. Think about that.
Yes, this is a film with a weak narrative. Studio Ghibli has made films with weak narratives before. I’m sorry, but Kiki’s Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, and The Secret World of Arrietty did not have exceptionally strong or intricate plotlines, but at least every single one of them imparted an awe-inspiring sense of fantasy. Even goddamn The Wind Rises had those magnificent dream sequences. Even From Up on Poppy Hill… actually, no, fuck that godawful melodrama.
The point being that aside from that last one, even the weakest Studio Ghibli film (that I’ve ever seen) was able to give the audience a taste of some immersive magical world to live and breathe in. And when Studio Ghibli is at its absolute best — as with Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke (still my choice for the greatest animated film of all time) — they’ve given us thriving magical worlds with intricate plots, nuanced moral themes, and highly developed characters.
By contrast, there’s nowhere near enough time or effort given to nurture the characters up to Ghibli’s usual standard. Because the character development arcs are so heavily truncated, it’s hard to get a handle on what (if anything) the characters have learned, thus any extant themes are half-baked at best. Even the Ghibli standard theme of environmentalism is nowhere to be found here!
And as for the magical setting, magic is only ever established as an arduous, time-intensive, disgusting pastime. Yes, we’re told that the finished potions smell like various flowers, but that doesn’t count for much in a medium devoid of smell. All we ever see is a mud-soaked workshop filled with various thorny plants and slimy animal carcasses. To say nothing of the extended sequences in which Earwig works herself to the bone, clearly not having any fun at all.
Either Earwig is working herself to exhaustion under the orders of Bella Yaga, or she’s hiding in fear from the destructive power of The Mandrake and his demonic minions. Either way, there’s no sense of affection, fun, or even reverence toward anything magical in this picture. And to repeat, that’s a huge goddamn oversight in a Studio Ghibli film.
Though at least we do get Thomas (Dan Stevens), a black cat who serves admirably as comic relief. And of course we get that awesome rock soundtrack, though — to my disappointment — the poster is a lie and Earwig herself never joins in any band. What a shame.
I’m glad they’re trying new things and getting some new blood, because God knows things have been growing stale at Studio Ghibli for too long. But they need to do better than Earwig and the Witch. Yes, the CGI animation is a wonderful bridge between the charming Ghibli style of old and modern standards of animation, but they need to get more comfortable with the medium so we can have longer movies with enough space to tell a proper story. Perhaps more importantly, we need stories any hint of novelty, characters with properly developed arcs, and settings worth spending any amount of time in.
Of course, this is very clearly a time of huge transition for Studio Ghibli, and it makes sense that there would be a rough patch while they’re changing the guard. (Remember the tough spot Disney was in, between Walt’s death in 1966 and the ’90s renaissance?) Let’s hope that this lesser entry is just a bit of trial and error before the company’s next masterpiece.