I sincerely believe that the release of Earwig and the Witch was supposed to be a momentous occasion because – after decades of adhering to a traditional hand-drawn style of animation – Studio Ghibli was finally making a move in the world of 3D computer-generated graphics. What is more, it could be read as a landmark strategic shift or maybe even a ‘changing of the guard’ as the studio’s first ever CG-animated project was helmed by Goro Miyazaki, the son of Hayao Miyazaki himself.
Well… Let’s just agree that good intentions are nowhere near enough to deliver a ground-breaking tectonic shift in the way Studio Ghibli has operated for multiple decades now. And to be perfectly honest, it would have been a gargantuan undertaking for any studio, given how technical and sophisticated this field has become over the years. It is simply impossible to imagine that Goro Miyazaki together with his collaborators somehow imagined they could barge into this field completely unprepared and deliver a film that could stand shoulder to shoulder (in technical terms) with its immediate peers hailing from Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks and others. But they did. What is even more difficult to comprehend is the fact that, as production of Earwig and the Witch was taking place, nobody had the audacity to challenge the filmmakers and suggest that what they were putting together would not be up to snuff in terms of technical polish, attention to detail, and sophistication of rendering. In fact, some sources suggest that Goro Miyazaki wasn’t consulting ‘the old guys’ at all and literally locked himself away in a studio together with a rag-tag team of young animators, thus completely evading any adult supervision. And – poof! – here we are.
Adapted from a children’s novel written by Diana Wynne Jones, whose other work had previously served as a basis for Howl’s Moving Castle, this film is best described as a strangely underbaked Harry Potter offshoot kept together by archetypal narrative solutions, most of which are never fully paid off. It tells a story of Earwig, a young orphan, who is adopted by a strange-looking couple only to find herself enslaved by an old witch and her barely present husband who might or might not be a demon in human form. The traditional approach to storytelling would then see Earwig attempt to break her shackles, eventually outwit her captors and embark on a quest to understand her own parentage that may or may not reveal she is special or unique in some fashion. However, Earwig and the Witch does not really commit to anything substantial in that regard and instead drowns the narrative in the tedium of tangential sub-narratives and gags, most of which do not work as well as they could have if the animation could convey the required scene kinetics. Which it simply does not.
Suffice it to say that to call Earwig and the Witch a disappointment could be easily passed off as a compliment. It is a genuine travesty that this film exists in this shape or form and it only begs a question if it would have been any better had it been constructed in a traditional manner. I don’t think it would be able to hold a candle to Studio Ghibli’s most prominent films (many of which are mentioned among the most important works of cinema as a whole), but chances are it would at least have a chance to succeed on the grounds of its own narrative. Granted, it is still a children story rooted in basic storytelling young kids would have no problem following, but in the current guise I don’t think children would gravitate to this film at all anyway. After all, they have been conditioned by Pixar and Disney productions to understand a certain level of technical proficiency in the field of CG-animation as familiar and they might not be too keen to deviate from it. For instance, the original Toy Story already looks a bit suspicious to a modern-day seven-year-old who will easily find more polished execution in a throwaway episode of Doc McStuffins or Paw Patrol. So, what are they supposed to make of a feature-length animation that: (1) looks like an eighty-minute cutscene from a 90s computer game and (2) fails to endear the viewer with its story or characters?
I think at this point it is almost self-explanatory. Earwig and the Witch is an out-and-out failure. It doesn’t have a good enough story to compel even the youngest viewers, its characters are flat, unfunny and instantly forgettable, and the whole thing looks borderline shameful. Truth be told, what could have been an interesting departure from a decades-long tradition within Studio Ghibli – or even a herald of a wholesale shift – is nothing more than an exercise in disappointment and a stain on the studio’s report card.