Many years back, a documentary aired that showed Hayao Miyazaki walking out of his son Goro’s film Tales of Earthsea. He was asked what he thought of the movie, to which he responded, “He’s not an adult yet.” I thought of that response after watching Earwig and the Witch, which Goro said he “didn’t consult with the old guys at all” when making it. This stance explains how he took Diana Wynn Jones’s novel and transformed it into an 82-minute disaster.
A modern fantasy tale of sorts, Earwig and the Witch follows the titular orphan girl (Taylor Paige Henderson) who gets adopted by the magical duo of Bella Yaga (Vanessa Marshall) and Mandrake (Richard E. Grant). Under their roof, Earwig aids Bella Yaga with her spells and doing all the heavy lifting. Fed up with her surroundings, Earwig attempts to learn magic on her own, with the aid of the talking cat Thomas (Dan Stevens). But as she digs into what Bella Yaga and Mandrake are doing, Earwig discovers an interesting past that the two had with a mysterious redhead (Kacey Musgraves).
One of the biggest problems I had with Earwig and the Witch is the overall narrative. What starts as a promising intro towards something imaginative instead finds itself lacking any meaning or whimsy. Most of the time, viewers will be “treated” to watching Earwig doing chores and having a fit over not being taught how to do magic. And when she decides to give it a go herself, the tone of the film has no childlike wonder to be found. To be absolutely blunt: this movie is unbearably boring!
Mind you, there are some snippets of good ideas here and there. Any scene where Mandrake takes center stage is brimming with more life and personality than the scenes without him. His mannerisms, magic, and even skills behind a rock organ are wonderful in every sense of the word. But when he’s nowhere to be found, the movie trudges along like a child mad over getting vanilla ice cream when they asked for chocolate.
Perhaps the weakest thing about Earwig and the Witch is Earwig herself. She is not at all like her past Ghibli female protagonists, which should sound like a good change of pace for the 35 year-old studio. But alas, Earwig spends most of her time stomping her feet and having a fit whenever she doesn't get her way. Nowhere in this film does she earn the chance to learn magic or have a reason to act out against her new foster parents. Earwig is anime's answer to Calliou, with an attitude so ear-piercingly bratty that the likes of Kiki, Chihiro, and the Kusakabe sisters would steer clear of her in a school cafeteria.
For a studio that’s known to go beyond the limits of imagination, I am discomforted over the fact that this Studio Ghibli movie lacks anything creative in the slightest. Every moment where Goro wants to wow his audience feels like you’re watching a magician show how he does a trick before he actually shows it off. There’s no mystery, no pizazz, and no wonder to be found in any element of this film. Instead of a big-time headlining act, Earwig and the Witch acts like a liquored-up cover band stuck in a sleaze pit of a dive bar.
And the animation isn’t even the worst part of the film. In fact, as far as Japanese CGI films go, it’s actually pretty decent. We all knew there’d be a day when Studio Ghibli would dip their toe into the realm of Pixar and Illumination, and it’s unfortunate that their first time is with a script like this. But there are some genuinely cool effects on display, especially when it involves Mandrake and his smoke-y eyes. It is most impressive when it comes to the characters' facial expressions, which replicates the drawn style of Ghibli films wonderfully. This is evident when Earwig tries her hardest not to laugh during a situation with Bella Yaga, with her face nearly exploding with the personality that the entirety of this script was lacking.
The weirdest part of Earwig and the Witch is Satoshi Takebe’s soundtrack. In any other film, I would call it mesmerizing, as it’s filled with an eclectic amount of folk, jazz, and psychedelic rock. Here, it all feels rather off. It’s good, but it doesn’t mesh at all with the movie and what it wants to accomplish. I appreciate them wanting to try to be different when it comes to scoring a Ghibli movie, but the end result rubs me the wrong way.
Despite its 82-minute runtime, the film still feels incomplete. Just as viewers are getting into the past of Bella Yaga and Mandrake, the movie simply ends. There’s no earth-shattering reveals, no closure, and no final payoff. If anything, Earwig and the Witch comes off as a TV show that got canned three episodes in, and the producers simply Frankenstein’d the footage they had made into one jumbled movie.
Those who subject themselves to watching Earwig and the Witch best prepare a palette cleanser soon after the end credits start rolling. This film will go down as the worst thing Studio Ghibli has ever brought to the screen. My only hope is that Goro Miyazaki learns more from his mistakes, with his most glaring one being that he was allowed to make movies on his own. After this and Tales from Earthsea, it’s obvious that he needs to grow up more before he's given a chance to sit in a director's chair again.
Promotional consideration provided by Brigade Marketing. In theaters February 3rd and on HBO MAX on February 5th.