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earwig and the witch review
A headstrong orphan discovers a world of spells and potions while living with a selfish witch.

Review by Musanna Ahmed

Directed by: Goro Miyazaki

Voice Cast: Taylor Paige Henderson, Dan Stevens, Vanessa Marshall, Richard E. Grant, Kacey Musgraves

earwig and the witch poster

Earwig and the Witch is a strange beast. The target audience for this Ghibli latest is children and not necessarily those who have the studio’s typical works as a reference point. Directed by Goro Miyazaki, son of the beloved director Hayao, this small-scale fantasy adventure looks nothing like the handcrafted epics of his father’s work. But it’s only by considering that patented Hayao Miyazaki style that one can examine the successes and the failures here, of which there is an imbalanced amount.

earwig and the witch review

Before we get to the overbearing elephant in the room that is the 3D animation, let’s begin with the story. It takes place in the English countryside during the '90s, when the lack of internet gave new people and places a real sense of discovery. In an orphanage, the exuberant young girl Earwig (Taylor Paige Henderson), who was abandoned by her witch mother, is reluctantly adopted by the strange Bella Yaga (Vanessa Marshall) and Mandrake (Richard E. Grant). The enigmatic, magic-practicing couple need an extra pair of hands and know Earwig’s potential for help as a witch.

Earwig finds herself bored by the routine domesticity and, in her attempt to see the outside world once again, she learns that Bella Yaga has sealed the exits with her magic. The only being she can turn to is the house cat Thomas (Dan Stevens), who reveals he can talk and proves to be quite the charming ally. The duo concocts a concoction that will let them break free from the indoors, pitting them against the rage of her adoptive parents.

earwig and the witch review

It’s a decent chamber piece centred on self-actualisation, which is familiar thematic territory in Studio Ghibli by now. It has some nice moments of interaction between the various characters, thanks to the top voice actors who do a lot of heavy lifting to emit emotion when the awkwardly animated faces cannot. But as it builds to an interesting climax, it ends at an incredibly abrupt point. The MCU may have trained modern filmgoers to stay after the credits for bonus scenes but this one rewires us into staying and hoping for the actual third act.

Furthermore, it’s based on a novel by Dianna Wynne Jones, the same author of Howl’s Moving Castle. In adapting that book, Hayao Miyazaki spun a wonderfully charming yarn with his idiosyncratic approach. I haven’t read the source material of this one, but if the film is an accurate adaptation, it feels like a curiously lowkey entry of Jones’ bibliography, with none of the enchanting elements of Howl’s Moving Castle. But certainly, the key difference is really the directors. Hayao is obsessed with fulfilling his distinct artistic vision, whereas Goro here puts the marketplace first, making something that he assumes would have global appeal with the use of CGI.

earwig and the witch review

Except it’s not successful at that. Occasionally, the visual quality looks genuinely fascinating. Some establishing shots took me by surprise because they looked photo-realistic, with fine textures and lighting. But the disturbingly unnatural characters represent an enormous deficiency of details. Pixar aims for a similar ambition – immersive production design with caricaturish human models. But those models are more pleasantly designed than what we have here (budget differences be damned), which is the sort of nightmare fuel cooked up by an amateur artist sincerely believing in their own hype.

Overall, though, the film itself isn’t as disastrous as it looks. But coming from a studio with a high cinematic standard, it falls well, well short in not just aesthetic quality but narratively and thematically too.

Earwig and the Witch is on UK/ROI VOD Now.