If you’re trying to decide whether or not to watch the latest Studio Ghibli movie, Earwig and the Witch, just try the logline “the first 3D animated Studio Ghibli film” on for size. If it fits, then this movie’s for you. If not, then avoid it like the plague, a tall order for anybody with even a shred of loyalty for the legendary Japanese animation studio—especially after the matter of directorial pedigree is put on the table. A whisper of “Miyazaki” is tempting to heed, even if the specific Miyazaki is Goro and not Hayao, Ghibi’s co-founder and animation icon. If anyone’s going to be the one to direct a 3D animated movie made under the studio’s banner, it might as well be one of them.
But Earwig and the Witch is such a jaw-dropping disaster that any association with it feels like a black spot on the Miyazaki name. Whatever Goro hoped to prove with or pull off by adding 3D to Ghibli’s repertoire, the experiment didn’t pan out: This is a deeply depressing movie to behold, not simply because 3D is such a departure from Ghibli’s visual signature, but because the 3D itself looks old, clunky and not of this era. Aesthetically, the film is closer to early 2010s efforts like Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart than modern, sophisticated examples of the medium output by Pixar, DreamWorks and arguably even smaller outfits like Illumination and Blue Sky. What’s most baffling about this mercifully brief film is that given a palette swap, it might’ve been good—not a revelatory entry in Ghibli canon but certainly a warm, welcome addition to it. Frankly, Earwig and the Witch looks ghastly enough that storytelling merit doesn’t even matter. It’s a movie almost too ugly to consider beyond the surface.
Admittedly, once beyond that surface, Earwig and the Witch cuts itself short just as the narrative’s actually picking up and the movie feels like it’s starting. But even a trifling diversion is worth spending time with when it’s done in the Ghibli style, which Earwig and the Witch lacks. The film leans on a familiar Ghibli blueprint, following a child, Earwig (Kokoro Hirasawa in Japanese, Taylor Paige Henderson in English), who, having been abandoned at an orphanage when she was just a babe, grows up fond of her surrogate home and nearly refuses to leave when she’s adopted by a bizarre couple at 10 years old.
Earwig doesn’t have much choice, of course, but upon arriving at the couple’s home, she learns that her new mom, Bella Yaga (Shinobu Terajima in Japanese, Vanessa Marshall in English), is a witch. Earwig immediately brightens up and tries to get Bella Yaga to teach her magic, but all Bella Yaga keeps her around for is the execution of low-skilled labor around the house. That’s not about to dissuade Earwig from trying to get herself a magical education, though! All she has to do is stay on Bella’s good side, and also avoid crossing paths with Bella’s partner, Mandrake (Etsushi Toyokawa in Japanese, Richard E. Grant in English), a tall and irascible man with conspicuously long ears.
While Earwig and the Witch’s tragic animation is its greatest detriment, the screenplay does the film no favors, either. The depth of Keiko Niwa and Emi Gunji’s script can be measured without the aid of an echo sounder: As soon as the actual story begins, the movie ends, as if they’re writing a TV show instead of a feature. The wheel-spinning that takes place over the first hour or so begins to chafe about as soon as Earwig’s mother (Sherina Munaf in Japanese, Kacey Musgraves in English) drops her at the orphanage’s doorstep, because if a movie’s going to look this blocky and chintzy, the least it can do is tell a good Ghibli tale. But taking the reverse course, if Earwig and the Witch had just stuck with traditional Ghibli animation, the movie’s visual whimsy might’ve at least net zeroed the first draft quality of the writing.
Earwig and the Witch is, by normal standards, a misfire—and by Ghibli’s standards it’s much worse. If there’s a silver lining here, it may be that the first 3D movie in the studio’s filmography is so damn bad it might also end up being its last, too.
Director: Goro Miyazaki
Writers: Keiko Niwa, Emi Gunji
Starring: Kokoro Hirasawa / Taylor Paige Henderson, Shinobu Terajima / Vanessa Marshall, Etsushi Toyokawa / Richard E. Grant, Sherina Munaf / Kacey Musgraves
Release Date: February 3, 2021
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.