Earwig and the Witch (hereafter Earwig) is the first fully computer-generated feature produced by Studio Ghibli, giving it instant curio status. Since the mid-1980s, the studio has specialized in traditional hand-drawn animation under the stern perfectionism of Hayao Miyazaki, who’s only sparingly relied on CGI for elaborate productions like Princess Mononoke. Miyazaki announced his retirement in 2013 upon completion of The Wind Rises (like previous retirements, it didn’t take—in 2016 he began work on How Do You Live?), signaling Earwig as a changing of the guard. Director Gorō Miyazaki (son of Hayao) boasted that he and his young staff “didn’t consult with the old guys at all,” a quote foretelling messy, ragged experimentation.
Alas, Earwig is no The Black Cauldron (a bad movie that nonetheless breaks from Disney orthodoxy in a few interesting ways), opting instead to tepidly retrace past Ghibli glories. Based on the Diana Wynne Jones novel of the same name (see also Hayao’s uneven but mesmerizing Howl’s Moving Castle), the film follows Earwig (Kokoro Hirasawa), a precocious ten-year-old orphan with antler-like pigtails. Earwig is adopted by shady magic weirdos Bella Yaga (Shinobu Terajima) and Mandrake (Etsushi Toyokawa), the former setting Earwig to grueling toil without actually teaching her any magic, the latter a ticking bomb of barely suppressed rage and unfulfilled ambitions.
It’d be folly to project much armchair psychology onto Gorō’s output, but Earwig makes it awfully hard to resist. There’s a documentary called Never-Ending Man that chronicles Hayao’s attempt at a CGI short about an adorable caterpillar named Boro. At one point it’s suggested that Miyazaki wanted a perfect duplicate of himself, “another me,” and was perpetually frustrated by his inability to produce a suitable protégé at Ghibli. When he retired, he seemingly took damn near the whole operation with him; in 2014, production suspended for restructuring while staffers Yoshiaki Nishimura and Hiromasa Yonebayashi left to form Studio Ponoc. Earwig’s ungrateful taskmasters read as pointed sour grapes, caricatures of frustrated artists (Bella Yaga and Mandrake once played in a rock band) feeding on the labors of the young.
The tragic part is that Earwig is too disjointed to be compellingly bitter. Like Howl’s Moving Castle, the majority of the action takes place in a geography-defying domicile of secret libraries and ostentatiously cluttered workstations. But note the perfunctory breakfast preparation scenes in Earwig and how little attention is paid to the simple act of cracking eggs. In Howl, eggs and bacon become a miniature set piece; a weirdly-obsessive attention to detail that’s probably maddening to render in animation but all the more magical when done well.
The migration to CG is the likely culprit; Earwig has the chilly plasticity of Pixar circa A Bug’s Life. This is Gorō’s third feature following Tales from Earthsea and From Up on Poppy Hill, both films benefiting from years of well-honed animation craft, but here the technology apes yet fails to duplicate the comforting Ghibli aesthetic.
Where Earwig truly breaks from Ghibli tradition is in its wish fulfillment of a young protagonist completely in control of her environment, Earwig going the entire movie unhumbled. A life immune to imposter syndrome is perhaps the movie’s greatest fantasy of all.
Earwig and the Witch (2020)
Runtime: 82 minutes
MPA Rating: PG
Streaming: HBO Max