Cert – PG, Run-time – 1 hour 23 minutes, Director – Gorō Miyazaki
A young orphan (Taylor Henderson) finds herself adopted by, and forced to work for, a witch (Vanessa Marshall)
Gorō Miyazaki is perhaps behind some of the bolder entries on Studio Ghibli’s slate. While his debut Tales From Earthsea might not be the best of the master-studio’s animations it certainly stands out as something adventurous and different from the many classic features that they’ve produced. It, including the animation style, feels inspired by a number of American fantasies of the 80’s. Now, the younger Miyazaki introduces a new animation style to the Ghibli roster in the form of their first fully 3D CG animated feature. Adapted from the Diana Wynne Jones children’s book of the same name (the studio previously adapted one of her works for, what is for my money their best feature to date, Howl’s Moving Castle), the story follows young orphan Erica (Taylor Henderson). She’s grown up, almost her entire life, in an orphanage, trying her best not to be adopted, making herself seem as unattractive a choice as possible – not knowing that she was left on the doorstep with instructions not to allow her to be adopted, the mother claiming she’ll be back one day when she’s away from a group of witches.
This final point comes back when Erica (real name Earwig) finds herself taken in by witch, Bella Yaga (Vanessa Marshall). Quickly Earwig is put to work, cleaning the grimy work area and prepping obscure ingredients for spells and potions. As this all-work treatment continues Earwig is determined to escape from the magical environment, although it’s not as easy as walking out the door – mostly due to the fact that it vanishes and moves when it comes whenever Bella Yaga wishes it to. In many ways this is as far as the plot extends, Earwig’s multiple attempts to escape, or at least learn some magic herself. With this in mind it’s not much of a surprise that the film only just reaches 83 minutes total run-time; including opening and closing credits. There’s not a great deal to grip onto within the rather simplistic narrative, and at times it’s even difficult to connect with Earwig who at times can prove to be quite an annoying protagonist.
Generally the film feels rather underdone. Admittedly it appears to be aiming for a much younger audience of children than many other Ghibli films, the general tone and style feels quite different to anything the studio has made before (even Earthsea had a fairly Ghibli tone to it). This particular film feels almost inspired by a number of smaller animations by some European groups – almost the kind we get from France and Spain with occasionally mildly starry casts for the English dub. The biggest name present within the cast for this particular film is undeniably Richard E. Grant, having great fun playing the growling voice of The Mandrake – a crochety, towering creature fond of nearby food, books and a good newspaper. Grant is certainly the most enjoyable thing about the film, and perhaps it is the fun you can hear him having that causes this.
Unfortunately it’s not enough to lift up the rest of the film – The Mandrake gets little screen-time, particularly within the first half to two-thirds of the film. The loose nature of the plot and simplicity of the film overall is a bit too much. Meaning that the film lacks in overall detail or escapist ability. Even the animation doesn’t feel completely best at times throughout. It’s no bad thing that at times it sometimes feels or looks a bit like stop-motion, however this is only in brief bursts and in general the look of the CG animation doesn’t always help with connecting with the film and feeling immersed within the limited boundaries of the world that it creates. Overall Earwig And The Witch unfortunately falls flat due to its lack of detail within the narrative, and to some extent its characters, luckily meaning that it only clocks in at 83 minutes.
While certainly something different from Ghibli, which is no bad thing, Earwig And The Witch unfortunately falters because of its general lack of detail making it feel underdone and hard to engage with.