Earwig And The Witch (Cert PG)

Theatrical (Distributor: Elysian Film) Running time: 82 minutes approx.

Release Date: May 28th

Orphans or abandoned children in fiction either have the best lives whilst in care and the worst lives when taken in by a new family or vice versa, there is rarely a happy medium. Maybe it takes a special child to break this cycle and enjoy the best of both worlds, someone with a magic touch?

In 1990s England, a red headed woman on a motorbike having evaded pursuers stops off at the St. Morwald’s Home for Children, regretfully leaving her baby daughter Earwig on the doorstep. The matron happily takes her in but doesn’t like the name, changing it to Erica Wigg. Ten years later, the rambunctious but good-natured Earwig rules the home and doesn’t want to leave it or her best friend Custard.

Not that she has any say in the matter as a strange couple, the rotund, stern Bella Yaga and lanky, taciturn Mandrake decide to adopt Earwig despite her protestation. Earwig is taken to a nice house but quickly learns Bella is a witch and Earwig is there to help make the spells, whilst Mandrake is not to be disturbed. Earwig agrees on the proviso Bella teaches her magic, but learns about something far more important – her mother.

Studio Ghibli is one of the last bastions of hand drawn 2D cell animation, so it was a bit of a surprise when the legendary studio announced its foray into 3D CGI animation, and even more surprised when the name Miyazaki was attached to the project. However, it is not Hayao Miyazaki in charge but his son Goro, whose previous efforts to follow in his father’s illustrious footsteps have met with mixed results.

For the second time, Ghibli adapts another novel by British fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones, following Howl’s Moving Castle in 2004. Earwig And The Witch was a posthumous release after Jones’ death in 2011 and is Ghibli’s first film set in Britain. It is a joint production with TV giant NHK in Japan thus first aired on TV before hitting cinemas, but like most things, COVID forced its delay.

Earwig is a typical Ghibli protagonist – young, headstrong, resourceful, but missing a key facet in her life that requires an emotional journey to discover it. In this case, it is her mother, the redhead at the start of the film, and like Bella Yaga, is a witch, something Earwig isn’t aware of. Unbeknownst to her, Earwig has a connection to her mother in a cassette she found in her belongings entitle “Earwig”, with a rock song Don’t Disturb Me she enjoys listening to.

At the home, Earwig is the leader of all the mayhem involving the other kids, but has the matron and staff wrapped around her finger through her politeness. She is not being duplicitous, nothing she does is spiteful, she just likes having her own way, and therefore being a slave to Bella is a sharp wake-up call for Earwig. Fortunately, she finds support in talking cat Thomas (obvious Jiji from Kiki’s Delivery Service reference), a “familiar” bullied into making the spells work.

Meanwhile, the demonic and brooding Mandrake is hidden away until meal times. For the bulk of the film, the time is split between Earwig being rushed off her feet performing menial tasks at Bella’s behest, or her trying out the magic for herself with Thomas’ help. This provides some laughs as it goes wrong at Bella’s expense, in response to her not teaching Earwig as agreed.

The weight of expectation on anything with the Ghibli name attached to it is a major factor in amplifying the shortcomings of this film. Poor Goro Miyazaki never wanted to be a filmmaker but he gave it a go regardless, his harshest critic being his own father! Consequently, Goro stands to take the brunt of the blame from unfulfilled and even angry audiences, but let’s be clear – this isn’t a bad film.

Reception to it has been mixed for good reason. One glaring issue is the length, a brisk 82-minutes that doesn’t give the story sufficient time to explore every nuance and detail behind it – assuming they exist of course. With little focus on Earwig’s mother, she is a Rebecca-like presence, whilst a similar lack of background for Bella and Mandrake reduces them to archetypes as cruel adoptive parents, except they dabble in magic.

Perhaps the real let down is the abrupt ending, bringing everything to a screeching halt when there was still so much left unexplained. The artwork behind the end credits offers a few hints but we need, nay deserve more; whether this was for budgetary reasons, TV time restrictions, or even in the source material, the complaint Miyazaki forgot to include an ending is unfortunately valid.

However, the real elephant in the room is the CGI animation. Objectively, it is great. The movements of the figures, their facial reactions are all realistic, partly because Miyazaki wanted to recreate a stop motion effect. The backgrounds were hand painted first before being digitised which is why they are truly magnificent as well as accurately representing England. The sound design is immersive too to complete the experience.

But, and this is the drawback for many, it sadly looks 15 years out of date in comparison to the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks’ current output. This again might be a result of a TV production budget, and the crux of why this is deemed a blemish against the Ghibli name, but hopefully people can look past this and enjoy the film for the amusing slice of escapist fantasy hokum it is.

Writing off Earwig And The Witch as “Goro Miyazaki chokes again” is a tad unfair. There are obvious flaws which may or may not be entirely his fault, but plenty of fun can be had with this charming little romp and it will keep the young ones quiet for 82-minutes which is a boon. Just don’t expect it to compare to Miyazaki senior’s works.

 

Rating – *** 

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