Earwig and the Witch is one of the ugliest major studio animated works in years and an incredible stumble for Studio Ghibli.
Name recognition has little to do with luminaries Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata’s placement atop the anime pantheon. No, what makes Studio Ghibli’s founders the biggest names in the form is much simpler: storytelling strengths aside, their work has a look and feel that is leagues ahead of most of what is out there. Other acclaimed auteurs in this space, like Makoto Shinkai and Mamoru Hosoda, make films that, whatever their many other merits may be, reflect a similar style to much of the common anime found on television. Miyazaki’s films, though they are recognizable to the untrained eye as anime, look like Miyazaki films, a phrase that conjures specific images and emotions that are integral to his works. Look, for example, at a few frames of Satsuki running in My Neighbor Totoro and you’ll find a fluidity and a conveyance of personality sorely missing in most other major animation. It’s this that makes Goro Miyazaki’s latest, Earwig and the Witch, so monumentally disappointing. Studio Ghibli’s first CGI-animated film is wholly devoid of, well, everything that has made the studio an industry titan. It’s an anonymous, ugly work made all the worse by the things it shares in common with Goro’s father’s masterpieces, playing like a movie actively seeking to take all the qualities that make Ghibli great and render them insipid.
Earwig is the daughter of a witch who, while mysteriously on the run from some other witches, leaves the child at an orphanage. Sometime later, Earwig is adopted by the Bella Yaga and the Mandrake, a witch and a demon respectively, who force her into magical servitude. The rest of the film is standard evil stepmother stuff. Earwig, and a talking black cat named Thomas, try to protect themselves from the witch’s magic and force her to be a little nicer to them. In the end, exactly that happens. And so, you’d be forgiven for assuming that this indeed might be a film like Totoro, which has a threadbare plot but is about vibes and wonder. You’d be wrong — this is a movie with a threadbare plot that is entirely about advancing its threadbare plot. The familiar, classic Ghibli awe is absent, and, for a film that is ostensibly full of magic, taking place in a house where doors are constantly disappearing and demons hang about, the whole thing is grindingly pedestrian in a way even the worst kids-flick dreck rarely is. If there’s any wonderment to be found in Earwig and the Witch, it’s in Earwig’s discovery of a rock band that Bella Yaga and the Mandrake used to play in with Earwig’s mother; though, of course, she doesn’t know it was her mother and never finds out, so it’s a bit of story that is entirely audience-facing, useful only to Earwig in that it makes her think her captors were once cool.
Even if any of this were vaguely interesting, it likely still wouldn’t be enough to overcome the film’s eyesore look. Earwig is populated by characters that look like stock Ghibli designs redone in a blocky 3D style without any personality — more than anything, they look like a first draft for actual character models. Earwig and the Witch makes a strong case for the ugliest animated work by a major studio in years, and, while one bad film does not a death knell make, any more output of this quality will represent a legitimate black stain on the legacy of Studio Ghibli.
You can catch Goro Miyazaki’s Earwig and the Witch in theaters today or streaming on HBO Max beginning on February 5.