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Earwig and the Witch is Studio Ghibli’s first 3D animated film. It’s disappointingly subpar.

Fun but baffling, Ghibli’s first foray into 3D animation feels like Miyazaki Gorō’s unfinished homework assignment.

2020 NHK, NEP, Studio Ghibli
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Studio Ghibli, home to the films of Miyazaki Hayao and many other animated masterpieces, has long been a stalwart holdout against the industry’s overall shift into 3D CG animation.

That changes with Ghibli’s newest feature release, Earwig and the Witch, coming to theaters on February 3 and joining HBO Max’s Ghibli collection on February 5. Directed by Miyazaki Hayao’s son, Miyazaki Gorō, the new film feels a little like a collage of familiar Ghibli traits, perhaps assembled to take the edge off the movie’s lackluster new visual mode.

At the same time, while Earwig mostly still looks like a Ghibli film, and while it’s still a cute and intriguing entry into the Ghibli catalog, it’s missing the essence of a Ghibli film.

Earwig is based on a Diana Wynne Jones fantasy novel, just like one of the studio’s most successful films, 2004’s Howl’s Moving Castle. Like Howl’s Moving Castle and many other Ghibli films, Earwig centers on a young girl who’s unexpectedly transported into a magical world — one she quickly has to learn to navigate with the help of a few magical friends. And like most Ghibli films, it’s dripping with a heady combination of gorgeous baroque detail and surreal thematic elements.

Ghibli films are often closer to moving portraits than films; that is, their character explorations and aesthetic sensibility are frequently more important than the plot. Ghibli fans love the studio’s catalog in large part because Ghibli films are so good at drawing you into their atmosphere, their setting, their landscape, and their sensory details. Earwig honors this tradition in many respects: It will certainly appeal to people who like to probe the in-betweens and backstories and unexplored details. If you wanted to see more herbology classes at Hogwarts, if you love exploratory side quests in video games, or if you’re drawn to the practical magic of stories like Kalila Stormfire, you’ll find Earwig hard to resist.

But it’s also an improbable, odd, frequently puzzling love song to youthful rebellion, rock music, and broken found families. These elements don’t entirely cohere with each other — nor does the film even attempt to have them make sense as a plot. And while those incongruities serve to make Earwig quizzically endearing, they also reveal the gaps in storytelling ability between Miyazaki senior and Miyazaki junior.

Earwig and the Witch is an odd story about very dysfunctional found families

Earwig finds a mysterious rock album that might hold a secret about her past.
2020 NHK, NEP, Studio Ghibli

Earwig and the Witch opens with a mysterious redheaded woman abandoning her infant daughter, Earwig, at an orphanage, declaring she’ll return for the girl after she’s dealt with “the other 12 witches.” Twelve years later, having long since given up on any family members claiming her, Earwig finally gets adopted.

Her saviors are a sinister couple — a cranky nameless witch and a powerful demon called the Mandrake. The Mandrake seems cold but quickly develops a soft spot for Earwig. The witch, meanwhile, treats Earwig like an indentured servant: She keeps the teen imprisoned in the house and demands that she serve as an assistant, helping the witch prepare ingredients for the small spells her customers request. While at first Earwig is eager to learn the tricks of her trade, she soon tires of the witch’s abusive treatment. So with the help of the witch’s black cat, an adorable familiar (a pet with magical qualities) named Thomas, she starts attempting some magic of her own to make her life more bearable.

That’s the blurb version of the plot. What this description can’t capture is twofold: how charming Earwig and her new kitty are as they progress through the storyline — and how patchy and full of narrative gaps that storyline is. The cottage the odd couple inhabits (the setting isn’t explicit, but it seems like suburban Britain) is a magical dimension, full of unexplored caverns and rooms that mysteriously move around. The witch’s workroom is a messy, overstuffed lair full of ingredients, spilled potions, and filth — every kid’s dream space. Earwig isn’t thrilled about her indentured servitude, but she has a blast exploring the house, and you can’t blame her.

The more she explores, however, the more huge questions she — and in turn, we, the audience — have. For example: Are the Mandrake and the witch actually a couple, or are they just odd friends and roommates? Is Earwig actually biologically related to one or both of them, and did they know that when they came to adopt her? How do the glimpses we get of their shared past (when they were much different people) explain how they became who they are now — specifically, why is the witch so mean and abusive and why is the Mandrake so antisocial? Why did the redheaded woman abandon Earwig to begin with? Does Earwig have any innate magical powers or is she, as her name suggests, just really good at getting her way? And what do witches and magic have to do with the lively rock band Earwig discovers shortly after leaving the orphanage?

These aren’t carefully seeded questions the film sets up and then systematically answers, nor are they trivial side questions that don’t matter to the overall story. The storyline — Earwig getting adopted and then attempting to fix her problems with magic — raises all of these glaring concerns but then doesn’t attempt to resolve them. They leave the whole film feeling like a setup for a sequel, or prequel, or something. It’s as if Miyazaki Gorō got impatient in the home stretch and simply didn’t complete his assignment, leaving the whole film unfinished.

The result is so uneven that it’s possible to read Earwig and the Witch as the escapist fantasy of an abuse victim — one in which she uses music and magic to unlock the secret to capturing the hearts of her abusers and gaining freedom from her isolated, overworked imprisonment. Obviously, I wouldn’t recommend letting kids in on that interpretation; but it speaks volumes that Earwig’s themes are so disjointed that it’s not quite clear what the takeaway is.

Miyazaki Gorō’s direction lacks balance, and Earwig’s 3D animation is too flat to compensate for it

A photo of a woman with long curly blue hair, a woman with long curly red hair, and a man with long curly purple hair. The women are sitting and the man is standing next to an orange Volkswagen bug, parked in front of a giant sparkling body of water on a bright sunny day. They are all young and the two women are smiling. The man has sunglasses and a “cool” expression. It’s a very happy memory.
A memory of a happier past, featuring three strangers to Earwig. But can she recreate some of that happiness in the present?
2020 NHK, NEP, Studio Ghibli

Ordinarily, ambiguity in a Studio Ghibli movie would be a strength, not a weakness. Ghibli films are famous for the way they use silence and transitions, liminal spaces and in-between sequences, to capture the profundity of moods and moments. A Ghibli film captures the essence of mono no aware, the Japanese concept of meaning and beauty arising from awareness of the transience and ephemeral nature of things. The most memorable Ghibli films and scenes often seem to generate energy from total stillness.

Unfortunately, none of those attributes are really present in Earwig. There are some moments early on when there are still shots of nature, or slow Ghibli-esque pans across landscapes. But these isolated shots don’t connect to a larger overall mood, characterization, or thematic idea. They feel like pale imitations from a director who knows what Ghibli films do, but not why.

This disconnect becomes even clearer once Earwig finds herself caught in the witch’s house — because from that point on, the film is never still again. Instead, we’re plunged into a noisy, busy sonic and visual landscape from which we never really get to escape.

In other words, Earwig looks like a Ghibli film, but it doesn’t ever truly feel like one. And even the highly striking animation aesthetic for which Ghibli is renowned feels largely absent, due to the muted, flat palette of the film’s CGI. Partly this a function of the technology itself, but partly it’s because we spend so much time in the shadowy, dim house of the witch. Save for a few brightly lit scenes of nostalgia, Earwig and the Witch never seems to fully transmit the bright, vibrant visual style usually seen in a Ghibli product.

So we’re left with an incomplete, paint-by-numbers version of a Ghibli film that fails to explain its strange parts. Ultimately, Earwig and the Witch is a far cry from Studio Ghibli at its finest.

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