Growing up in an orphanage in the British countryside, Earwig has no idea that her mother had magical powers. Her life changes dramatically when a strange couple takes her in, and she is forced to live with a selfish witch. As the headstrong young girl sets out to uncover the secrets of her new guardians, she discovers a world of spells and potions, and a mysterious song that may be the key to finding the family she has always wanted.
I feel as this movie didn't get a fair shake. Critics saw that it wasn't basically a CG version of the modern ghibli art style and just discarded it automatically, with everyone else following suit. Yes the art style isn't a masterful work of both simplicity and beauty often attributed to ghibli. Rather like Ocean Waves, it is departure, however I do think it's more interesting than the majority of mainstream CG animation, being much more expressive and playful. More similar to indie styles, almost like CG claymation. The characters might not be the most original, but you could probably say that about half the other ghibli movies as well. It features a precocious energetic female protagonist similar to Fio or Arrietty, although a bit younger. The character development is tepid partially by design I believe as the story's resolution seems to be designed around a future sequel(which sadly seems unlikely to be made now) The story is the common orphan with terrible foster parents trope with a few twists thrown in. It's just Fine.... It's a playful kids movie of decent quality in short that was buried under the highest expectations ever. Would have probably done good enough to justify the sequel if the British Dub got a widespread theatrical release, or at least being featured on Disney+ if that bridge wasn't burnt already.
There was once a popular animation studio, with Oscar wins to its name, who decided to flip from its signature animation style to do something in CGI. The result was a stonking adventure romp that perfectly captured the look of their animation whilst embracing the new technology. That studio was, of course, Aardman Animation and the movie was “The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists”. Aardman had forged its reputation with “claymation”, so the new approach was risky. Yet their 2012 debut was everything it should have been. Fast forward 8 years to Studio Ghibli’s “Earwig and the Witch” and what do we have? What we have is evidence that it is a hard trick to reproduce. There are two core issues at stake here: one is whether or not Ghibli made the technology their own and stamped it with their own unique style. The second is, did they tell a good story? Starting with the latter, the Diana Wynne Jones book of the same title is exactly the sort of staple we expect from Ghibli. Afterall, she wrote “Howl’s Moving Castle” so we knew we were in safe territory. (It was her last story as she passed away of lung cancer sadly in 2011.) Unfortunately, this adaptation may well expect the audience to be familiar with the work otherwise the plot appears to be full of gaps. We were not familiar with the book so we struggled. The story concerns “Earwig” who was dumped at an English orphanage some years earlier by a woman claiming to be a witch. She is grown into a colourful and strong-willed young lady with a unique knack of twisting adults to her will with her beguiling charm. This comes in handy when she is adopted by a powerful sorcerer and village witch who set her to work grinding up the ingredients for their potions. Despite Earwig’s hopes it seems she is not destined to learn the ways of witchcraft and hatches her own plan to bend the situation to her own liking. The scenario is well worn but likable. The problem is the over-arching narrative expected of orphan dramas: who are my parents, and why was I abandoned? Oddly enough Earwig doesn’t seem to care one bit and this normal narrative plays almost no part in the story. We never really establish who her parents were although we do know that the woman, who abandoned her, and Earwig’s adopted parents, are closely linked having played once together in a band. The band broke up under circumstances that remain unclear. The retelling of those event seems to not tie up with the original abandonment of Earwig at the orphanage. There is obviously a lot here that is being left unsaid. The story itself lacks a satisfying structure. There is no real third act. Earwig gets adopted and spends the whole movie attempting to survive the witch’s ill temper until, suddenly, she gets what she wants. Then the film ends with the re-appearance of the woman who abandoned her. This we assume is her mother but since so much is left unexplained, she could be anybody. …and what’s the business about the witch offering potions-for-sale to everyone in the village? This despite the head of the orphanage being adamant that witches don’t exist! The tale is played out in a rural Britain that looks like it is sometime in the 1970’s or 80’s. It is an environment lovers of Roald Dahl will be comfortable with. You will see it in such movies as “Gnomeo and Juliet” (2011 Touchstone Pictures/Rocket Pictures) and “Arthur Christmas” (2011 Columbia/ Sony/Aardman). It all so rosy and anachronistic - like the front of a Christmas Card. The look and feel of the animation is almost exactly like those two movies so there is nothing new to see here. This is NOT anime. It looks nothing like anime. If Sony had turned this out, we would have been happy. But this isn’t Sony and it certainly ain’t Aardman. It’s Ghibli. We expected better. We expected the CGI to be adapted to their anime style. It should have been artistic. It should have been moody and mood-setting: all pastel hues conveying the yearning for a long-lost world full of magic & innocence. The look of this movie lacks romance. It is bright and hard with super-vibrant colours. It is visually nothing with some elements not even fleshed-out. Take the CGI on the cat Thomas. Given the amount of close-up screentime Thomas got why was he so lacking in any detail? Anime should be beautiful and easy on the eye. The look of “Earwig and the Witch” on screen is simply brash and unattractive. “Kiki’s Delivery Service” this ain’t. Will “Earwig and the Witch” become a firm family favourite at Christmas? That’s the money spot, isn’t it? Audience reactions were muted. The movie didn’t stink yet the lack of clarity in the screenplay dragged it down. The missing warmth robbed it of that essential ‘anime feel’. It simply was not ‘Studio Ghibli’-enough for fans of the studio. For those abroad, who were less familiar with anime, it simply lacked anything special. We reviewed the Netflix dub and it does the film no favours. Despite boasting the voice talents of Richard E Grant, the lip synch is awful. You may wish to watch it in the original Japanese with subtitles instead. The problem? It is hard to put a finger on it. It may be that the English-language script did not well match the lip movements or that the animated mouth movements are inadequate in articulating what is being said. Certainly, some small sections of the English-language soundtrack are inaudible. It seems that if it could go wrong, it did go wrong. Still, this is genuinely NOT a really bad movie. Kids will probably like it. You might even summon the courage to watch it twice. But a classic? Maybe not. Yet it shows some promise. Call this one a work-out and put it behind you Ghibli. We look forward to the next effort.
While watching this film I couldn't help but be reminded of Coraline (2009). It had the same feel without any of the eerie feeling which I personally dislike from Coraline. Earwig and the Witch is a little unorthodox in its storytelling but I enjoyed it. A very unique film that did leave several unanswered questions. The song is very catchy too. All in all a great watch, not your typical Studio Ghibli film but good in its own right.
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