‘Earwig and the Witch’ Review: Domestic Incantations

A strong-willed young heroine, a witch, a talking cat, cute magical minions: “Earwig and the Witch” has many of the familiar qualities of a Studio Ghibli film. And yet Ghibli’s latest, directed by Goro Miyazaki, the son of the famed animator Hayao Miyazaki, uses ingredients from the tried-and-true Ghibli recipe while serving a film that lacks the heart the studio has always brought to its best.

A headstrong orphan girl named Earwig gets adopted by a witch named Bella Yaga (Baba’s cousin, perhaps?) and a reclusive demon writer named Mandrake only to serve as the equivalent of a sorcery sous chef, prepping ingredients for spells, doing dishes and mopping floors. Earwig, whose own mother was a witch, is used to being the boss lady; with her perilously arched eyebrows and pigtails perched like devil horns on top of her head, she typically charms and manipulates her way to her goals but is stumped by her new surroundings.

“Earwig and the Witch” brought many other stories to my mind: a bit of “Little Orphan Annie” and “The Little Princess,” a stretch of “Pippi Longstocking,” a parcel of “Kiki’s Delivery Service.” And yet the story, adapted from the novel by Diana Wynne Jones (whose work has also been tackled by Ghibli in my personal favorite, “Howl’s Moving Castle”), feels vacant. For one, it’s the abundance of red herrings in this fleeting 82-minute feature; connections and relationships are implied (and a plot point about a witchy rock band flies by) but end up leading to dead ends, making the journey feel incomplete.

But the most regrettable part is the animation. “Earwig” is the studio’s first entirely computer-animated feature. The younger Miyazaki has referred to this as a move into the future. But in foregoing the hand-drawn animations, Ghibli has lost whimsy and character. Like Pixar on steroids, “Earwig” doesn’t look remotely Ghibli, instead like an overly glossed, digital scrim laid over a narrative that reaches for the fantastical. There are bright colors and spirited music and a solid English dub cast (Richard E. Grant, Vanessa Marshall, Dan Stevens, Taylor Paige Henderson, Kacey Musgraves), but there’s less attention to detail.

Does one animator a whole studio make? Of course not. And yet, Studio Ghibli, as piloted by Hayao Miyazaki, became a history-maker in the animation universe. Things must inevitably change; one Miyazaki makes room for another. That said, I hope “Earwig” is not a harbinger of a new age of C.G.I. films that are more shine and pixels than soul and sketches. When I consider the hands that summoned the magic of films like “Princess Mononoke” and “Spirited Away,” I can only say this: If that’s now just an artifact from the past, I’m not ready for the future.

Earwig and the Witch
Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 22 minutes. In theaters now and on HBO Max Friday. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.

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