Review of Earwig and the Witch (2020)

Moving picture, 82 minutes

Niwa Keiko (writer), Gunji Emi (writer).

Seen in 2023.

I saw the English-language dub.

The child of a witch is adopted from the orphanage by another witch. The girl is forced to labour, preparing ingredients for black magic in an English town. To escape slavery, she manipulates her new parents like she manipulated her friends and caretakers at the orphanage.

Ghibli’s first computer-generated feature-length film, following the CG Ronja the Robber’s Daughter (2014). Like Ronja, it was made for television. Visually, it’s on the level of more expensive Dreamworks productions from the preceding decade: Workmanlike and rather dull. The car chase that opens the movie sets the bar for animation quality. It’s as if the animators forgot half the things they knew about physics when they put down their pens and took up their 3D software.

In terms of storytelling technique, too, the film is a step back from Ghibli’s then-recent standard. “Earwig” talks to herself even when her antagonists are in earshot, because the makers of the film failed to find any effective way to characterize the protagonist or communicate her plot. She does stylized, static, manga-style facial expressions instead of the rich realism of Whisper of the Heart (1995) or the child-friendly dynamism of Ponyo (2008). Magic just glows.

Beneath the visuals and the storytelling technique, Dianna Wynne Jones’s writing skill can still be felt. Niwa Keiko managed to translate it to film, fruitfully combined with the soft moralism of the studio. The adoptive “mother” Bella and her demon “husband” are redeemed, albeit through torture. Earwig herself is also physically punished, but psychologically unaffected by confinement, social isolation, verbal abuse, and violence. Earwig’s willpower reminds me of Chie the Brat (1981), updated for a generation of children that expects the empty spectacle of Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017). There is only slightly more psychology in Earwig: The protagonist does show how she misses her friends.

Thomas, a cat, says he doesn’t usually talk, but then he never stops. Thomas thereby surpasses the vulgarity of Jiji in Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), a movie that has the same poor worldbuilding, but all the extra psychological integrity absent in Earwig. Ultimately, it is the shallow characterization and weak development that make Earwig a bad film.

References here: Ghibli movie titles, 2023-07-01, The Boy and the Heron (2023).

moving picture Ghibli animation Japanese production fiction