Earwig and the Witch

Review by Rich Cline | 2.5/5

Earwig and the Witch
dir Goro Miyazaki
prd Toshio Suzuki
scr Keiko Niwa, Emi Gunji
voices Kokoro Hirasawa, Shinobu Terajima, Etsushi Toyokawa, Gaku Hamada, Sherina Munaf, Yuji Ueda
English voices Taylor Paige Henderson, Vanessa Marshall, Richard E Grant, Dan Stevens, Kacey Musgraves, JB Blanc
release Jpn 30.Dec.20,
US 3.Feb.21, UK 28.May.21
20/Japan Ghibli 1h22

grant stevens musgraves

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Bella, Earwif's mother and Mandrake
Studio Ghibli's first foray into digital 3D animation, this film of course looks strikingly original while taking a character-based approach to a story tinged with magic. So it's a bit frustrating that the tone is so uneven, never developing a sense of momentum. There's potential in this engaging tale about a group of damaged souls, but the writers opt for mystery and quirky thrills rather than something deeper.
As an infant, Earwig (Henderson) is left at a British orphanage by her witchy mother (Musgraves), then grows up with no knowledge of who she really is. At age 10 she's adopted by the witch Bella Yaga (Marshall), who just wants her to help her make potions, and her sinister husband Mandrake (Grant). Earwig is fascinated by this witchcraft, and delighted when she discovers that the cat Thomas (Stevens) can talk. And they begin plotting to turn the tables on Bella Yaga, protecting themselves from her punishment spells and gradually taking control of the household.
Director Miyazaki (son of the iconic Hayao, who developed this project) eschews photorealism for an eye-catching digital anime style. So the characters have a terrific doll-like appearance, which is augmented by the shaded storytelling and witty nods to stop-motion. There's a lot going on here, although the narrative never settles into a groove. Flashbacks add the hint of a rock and roll vibe, playing on the band Earwig's mother was in with Bella and Mandrake. Most scenes are stilted by strangely clumsy dialog or a generic jazzy comedy score, but there are several wonderfully eye-popping sequences along the way.

Earwig is a remarkably colourful character, with prickly know-it-all edges that belie her cute pigtails. Despite her sudden temper and determination to manipulate everyone around her, Earwig's curiosity makes her easy to identify with as she rebels against the stupid grown-ups. Bella is a more one-note harridan, repetitively harsh about everything; Mandrake is more intriguing with his demonic stare, offbeat appetite and surprising moments of warmth.

The oddest thing about this film is that it lacks the sense of wonder that Ghibli usually infuses into its work, including other adaptations of English novels like this one. Miyazaki's goosebump-inducing animation bodes well for the future, but more attention to narrative and dialog is badly needed. The script here never bridges the snarky comedy, gothic thrills and soapy back-story into a coherent whole. And Earwig's journey feels abruptly unfinished, lacking either a build-up or a proper pay-off.

cert pg themes, violence 19.May.21

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© 2021 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall