The studio that enchanted us as children with Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” and “My Neighbor Totoro” has released its first film in six years. “Earwig and the Witch” is a far cry from these old-school illustrated films, venturing into the world of 3D CGI. Directed by Miyazaki’s son, Gorō Miyazaki (“From Up on Poppy Hill”), the movie follows Earwig (Taylor Henderson, “Evil Lives Here”), a mischievous and manipulative, though entirely kindhearted, young girl who grows up in an orphanage. Earwig, more often referred to as Erica, has quietly come to wield serious power, using her charm and willpower to get her way.
When Erica is adopted by Bella Yaga (Vanessa Marshall, “Harley Quinn”) and the Mandrake (Richard E. Grant, “Master Moley”), a strange couple with supernatural attributes, she finds herself in a new and magical world over which she has no sway. Forced to work as an assistant in Bella Yaga’s laboratory, Erica wants to learn magic in order to rearrange the power dynamic; this goal proves to be quite difficult to achieve.
Often, we regard animated films as contemporary fables, artfully crafted visual worlds with fantastical elements trying to teach some moral lesson. This is undeniably true of “Spirited Away,” which, in addition to reflecting on Japanese history, teaches courage and the value of friendship. The lessons taught by “Earwig and the Witch” are less straightforward. Perhaps we are meant to see the value of self-sufficiency as Erica must take it upon herself to outsmart Bella Yaga with her own tools. Or it could be a meditation on loving the unlovable when Erica shows compassion to the callous Mandrake.
Either way, the underlying message is more sinister: control your captors (through any means, magic or charm) to achieve a life of comfort and luxury. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted this idea to be imprinted on me as a child, and it remains unsettling today. As an adult, the film has a charming quaintness. Erica is cheeky and has an admirable if ill-advised curiosity. Looking past the moral implications, the story is inoffensive and a bit bland.
There are a number of unresolved plot holes in the film, namely regarding Erica’s mother (voiced by Kacey Musgraves, who also sings much of the music in the film) and her activities in the intervening years. Ending the movie abruptly, the filmmakers seem to have deliberately chosen to leave these questions unanswered. Though a different and more explanatory ending may have made the story more cohesive, “Earwig and the Witch” would not necessarily have been better with a less porous storyboard.
I happened to see a tweet the other day that makes a good point: Every movie does not need to be “good.” From a narrative standpoint, “Earwig and the Witch” is lacking. The story is full of holes and does not resolve at the film’s conclusion.
Visually, it is evident that Studio Ghibli is wading into unfamiliar waters. The 3D animation is plasticky and often unnaturally lit, occasionally more reminiscent of video game graphics than cinema, especially given the standard set by Pixar and DreamWorks Animation. And then there is the moral issue of the film’s problematic message.
But for all of its missteps, “Earwig and the Witch” is endearing and cute. I would not show it to a young and impressionable child, but as a nostalgic adult, this movie strikes a chord. “Earwig and the Witch” is no “Spirited Away.” Scholars will not debate it, and I will not insist that my own future children watch and rewatch it. Yet, as a respite from coursework, “Earwig and the Witch” does the job
Daily Arts Writer Ross London can be reached at email@example.com.