REVIEW: ‘Earwig and the Witch’ Blends Rock and Magic Beautifully

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Earwig and the Witch
Still from Earwig and the Witch © 2020 NHK, NEP, Studio Ghibli

Studio Ghibli is iconic. The animation studio out of Japan is a staple for pushing the boundaries of both animation and storytelling and for doing so while telling revelatory and deep narratives about childhood. Earwig and the Witch aims to continue this tradition, but while it gets close, it feels unfinished. Directed by Gorô Miyazaki, written by Keiko Niwa and Emi Gunji, and produced by studio co-founder Toshio Suzuki, with planning from Hayao Miyazaki, the film is based on the novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones, the author behind the source material for Howl’s Moving Castle.

The film focuses on Earwig (Kokoro Hirasawa/Taylor Paige Henderson), an orphan growing up in an orphanage in the British Countryside. Set on never being adopted, Earwig does what she can to stay in the home with her friends, but that changes when a strange couple, Bella Yaga (Shinobu Terajima/Vanessa Marshall) and the Mandrake (Etsuchi Toyokawa/Richard E. Grant), takes her in. But this odd couple isn’t planning to be Earwig’s foster parents. Instead, Earwig is made to work as a witch’s extra set of hands.  Headstrong and independent, the young girl sets out to uncover the secrets of her new guardians and discovers a world of spells and potions, all with the help of Thomas (Gaku Hamada/Dan Stevens), a black cat. Along the way, she discovers a mysterious song that may be the key to finding the family she has always wanted.

While Earwig repeatedly asks to be taught magic, she’s unaware of her own witchy background. While the audience is clued into this from the very beginning of the film, the young girl isn’t. By exploring the couple’s house, the girl begins to understand more of herself, especially when she discovers a tape with the word Earwig scribbled on it.

Now, it’s true that there is an overarching theme for Earwig and the Witch, which is spelled out by our young protagonist early on in the film. Despite what adults think, children are not dolls to be played with or dressed up by adults to suit their needs. The young girl pushes back on authority and circumstance throughout the film, acting for herself, ignoring warnings, and attacking life unafraid. Unlike other orphan stories, this girl is not shown as yearning or lost; she is shown as confident and assertive, bending the world around her and finding the answers that she may not even know she needs. In this way, the film captures the Studio Ghibli spirit despite visually being a sharp departure from the studio’s signature animation style as the first CGI animated feature.

Initially, the CGI animation took a little bit to get used to. While there are signature elements of Studio Ghibli animation like the characters’ eyes and body designs, seeing CGI animation is something entirely unique. While last year’s Lupin III: The First brought the anime style to 3D in a way that didn’t feel awkward, I was unsure if other animators could do the same. But in truth, the talent and beauty of Ghibli designs extend to the CGI realm of animation just as much as what came through the hand-drawn works of its classic films. There is a wonder and beauty to the Earwig and the Witch’s animation because of its whimsical quality. Still, more importantly, it’s seen in how the animators visualized music in the film.

Music, British rock of the 1950s and 60s especially, is the heart of the film. With a score of drums and guitar riffs that rotate from pop-rock to hard rock and psychedelic, you can feel the story’s emotion not just from the characters’ looks but from the music that plays. Music, as the film says, carries you to a different place. The animation of this film is one with the music, and this is beautifully shown in the character of the Mandrake. A towering figure with long point ears, circular glasses, and all the makings of a villain, his temper is short, and Earwig works it.

When the Mandrake is disturbed, the music intensifies, with a visualization of the audio dancing on his character in his forehead, on his shoulders, and in his stance. But at the same time, when his character softens, the sharp electricity that illustrates the booming rock is traded with a rainbow light show that looks like the Northern Lights. This is where the animation shines.

Earwig and the Witch
© 2020 NHK, NEP, Studio Ghibli

That said, Earwig and the Witch also carries a burden as the first feature film production in four years to come from the fan-favorite studio. And while it carries that weight beautifully with its soundtrack, score, and gorgeous and whimsical animation, the film’s story itself feels abruptly ended. While the film’s pace is slow and steady, with little montage, the third act of the film after the climax is squished into such a small time frame that the pace accelerates before stopping right when you feel the characters will get resolution. This is the film’s only flaw, making it hard to appreciate from a narrative perspective.

While family isn’t the central theme of Earwig and the Witch, it is a looming question that hangs over the film from the moment we see the young girl left at the orphanage. We’re aware of a council of witches, but we don’t learn about them. We know her mother was on the run, but we don’t know what happened. We know that she is connected to Bella and Mandrake, but the exact specifics aren’t shared. And with the film’s reveal and swift end, those questions grow, so much so that I let out an audible “what?!” when the film ended. At only an hour and 22-minutes with credits included, the film is short, especially when compared against some of the other iconic Studio Ghibli films. Its brevity is its hindrance and hurts what would be a near-perfect film otherwise.

Overall, Earwig and the Witch isn’t perfect, and its ending left me frustrated. That said, it is a beautiful film about a stubborn girl with a wondrous curiosity that leaps from the screen. Our young protagonist is sharp, witty, and a perfect character to add to the Studio Ghibli roster. But beyond that, the film is all about heart, and its lack of true evil makes it a joyous film to watch, while its stunning original theme song and soundtrack that embodies British rock will have you singing along and losing yourself in the story.

Earwig and the Witch will premiere in US theatres on February 3, 2021, in both Japanese subtitled and English dub versions and will stream exclusively on HBO Max starting February 5, 2021.


Earwig and the Witch
  • 7.5/10
    Rating - 7.5/10
7.5/10

TL;DR

Earwig and the Witch isn’t perfect, and its ending left me frustrated. That said, it is a beautiful film about a stubborn girl with a wondrous curiosity that leaps from the screen. Our young protagonist is sharp, witty, and a perfect character to add to the Studio Ghibli roster. But beyond that, the film is all about heart, and its lack of true evil makes it a joyous film to watch, while its stunning original theme song and soundtrack that embodies British rock will have you singing along and losing yourself in the story.