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HEADS UP: I was able to review this film early thanks to a screener.
One day as I was scrolling through Facebook, I saw a post asking about directors, actors, etc that you root for, even if they haven’t been in anything or made anything good. To me, that is Goro Miyazaki. The son of the grandmaster of theatrical Japanese animation, Goro has sadly had to live under his father’s shadow as his film output of Tales from Earthsea, From Up on Poppy Hill, and Ronja, The Robber’s Daughter (technically a TV series) has been some of the more polarizing releases from the studio. Most of the fans think he hasn’t made anything good, and I just find that to be too snobbish and cynical. Yes, he might not have his dad’s spark, but I think he has the potential to make something incredible. What doesn’t work for me is that his stories needed another run-through or a rewrite. Tales from Earthsea feels like it needed to be a series of films or a show, but was stuck being a single film. From Up on Poppy Hill has some grounded moments and some solid drama, but it has an abrupt ending. He’s almost there, and while I might like most of his work, I get why people don’t. He doesn’t have the same magic as his father, and when he tries to copy his dad’s way of making films, they seem to have elements that don’t fully mesh well. That is sadly the case for Earwig and the Witch.
Directed by Goro Miyazaki, written by Keiko Niwa and Emi Gunji, this is Ghibli’s first foray into CGI animation with the help of NHK Enterprises. It was made as a made-for-TV film, which is why it feels shorter than most Ghibli features at around 85 minutes. It was picked up by GKids and given a small limited release, and will be on HBO Max very soon. So, what do I think about Goro’s recent jump into CGI animation? Well, let’s find out.
Our story follows a young girl named Earwig, who is dubbed by Taylor Paige Henderson. She lives at an orphanage where she was dropped off as a baby. She wants to stay there due to her friends being there, playing pranks, and enjoying the orphanage’s iconic shepherd’s pie. One day, the orphanage is visited by two oddball individuals. One is named Bella Yaga, dubbed by Vanessa Marshall, and a being known as the Mandrake, dubbed by Richard E. Grant. They decide to adopt her and take her back as less of an adopted daughter and more of a helping hand for Yaga’s potion-making. Wanting to escape the house these two live in, Earwig tries to find a way out. With the help of a black cat named Thomas, dubbed by Dan Stevens, she tries to give herself an advantage in this house of obvious magic and mystery.
So, one thing that I think we should talk about is the CGI animation. While CGI has been around in other countries for as long as the original Toy Story, it seems like, from my observation, that other countries didn’t start using it more commonly until a few years after the US got a head start. That’s not entirely true, because who knows what we are missing because a lot of countries don’t use CGI animation in the same spirit and vein as the US film industry does. They have a different production flow, and that is probably why many of them are still catching up visually since some of them are around the 2007/2008 era of CGI animation. That’s not a bad thing, but it gives more casual animation fans a raised brow when they see CGI animation from other countries. Luckily, it seems like other countries have found their ways of working with CGI, and it has worked well for countries like China. But what about Ghibli and Goro’s approach to CGI with Earwig? While it doesn’t have the same energy in its movements, it does look good on a visual level. The animations are smooth, and the overall world has a very cool figurine/plasticine/Laika-style look to everything. It does look good to a degree, and I think the characters do have distinct animation quirks and their movements to stand out from each other. What is missing is the smaller details, and since the team that Goro worked with wasn’t super familiar with CGI, it can be a reason as to why some of the animation is missing that personal touch from Ghibli’s 2D films. It’s expressive enough, and there are points where they do the typical Ghibli-style facial reactions and hair standing up straight, but I think this is why some people have had issues with the visuals. It looks too polished and doesn’t have some of the smaller elements that studios like Pixar and Disney put into their animation. It’s why even fantastic Japanese CGI animated films like Lupin III: The First still feel a little lacking in some regards. This film does have a lot of fantastical visuals and moments that do line up with Ghibli’s line of work. I think my favorite part of the animation is with the Mandrake who is the entire scene-stealer of the film. He is the one who has the most memorable design, the best story beats, and the best visual moments. Still, I get why people will say the animation is lacking. If Ghibli can hire a more experienced team of CGI animators, or maybe team up with studios like Light Chaser, Pearl Studios, or something like that, maybe they can have a better product next time.
The animation is not the biggest fault of the film. To me, the story is the biggest fault. For a TV film that’s 85 minutes long, it feels like there are huge chunks of the story missing. Not like they cut them out ala The Weinstein Company, but they focus so much on one part of the story, that the last third has to push the most important story beats to the last 10 minutes. It’s another Goro Miyazaki film with an abrupt ending. What’s worse is that the ending feels like the story was about to get good. Not that there aren’t nice or entertaining moments during the first two-thirds, but when the last third has such touching emotional beats, and one heck of a closing reveal, well, it stings more. The film spends much of its time with Earwig who is trying to make a potential potion to avoid having to deal with the threats of Yaga, and that simply takes up too much time in the film. What would have been nice is if the film itself was more like two hours or so, and instead of being in the house the entire time, they showed off those moments that you see in the ending credits. It’s disappointing because the story does have some pretty good themes and story elements of dealing with loss and losing that part of you that gave your life spark. Simply put, I was interested in Earwig getting back at Yaga, and that got tiring after realizing how much of the runtime is dedicated to that part of the story. As I said, there are parts of the story where I enjoyed the film. I like seeing the Mandrake choose the meals for everyone. I like Earwig connecting with Thomas. I love her finding out who her mom was, and the past lives of the two adults with whom she lives. The performances are also quite good with Vanessa Marshall and Dan Stevens doing great work, and while I do love Richard E Grant, his character gets stuck saying a lot of his lines in low growly voices. Even Earwig’s mom, who is dubbed by country star Kacey Musgraves, is a cool character, but she is barely in the film, so outside of her singing talents, why cast her? It’s a real shame because this could have worked, and I don’t know if the story was truncated due to it being a TV movie, or if the writers and Goro had trouble coming up with a story that has a better flow to it.
It’s annoying because there are plenty of cool elements to the film. First off, I love Earwig’s Mom’s connection to Yaga and Mandrake. There is a compelling interesting story there, but it’s skimmed over. I think one of my favorite story beats was when Mandrake gets Earwig’s favorite dish for dinner. It was a genuinely nice scene. I also adore the rock and roll soundtrack and opening animation. It gives this quirky fantasy setting a unique flair that I can honestly say I haven’t seen in a Ghibli film. The composer of this film is Satoshi Takebe, who also worked on From Up on Poppy Hill, Romeo x Juliet, Ronja the Robber’s Daughter, and Deltora Quest. I also love the visuals at points, and when the CGI can go into the quirky Ghibli movements and reactions, it looks fantastic. The ending credits are also fun to watch, but the 2D drawings seen there do make me wish Earwig was in 2D.
Earwig and the Witch is frustrating to watch. You can see the great film there, and who knows, maybe people will love this TV film as the years go on, but I don’t think they should give up on CGI. What they need to do is maybe work on forming a CGI animation team so that they can make talented individuals work on both 2D and CGI films. I think they can easily make it work. I don’t think this is the worst animated film of 2020, and I think some people are being wildly harsh and critical in the same way people are critical to “lesser” Pixar films. If you want to watch this film, you can either go to whatever theaters are going to play it, or you can be smart and wait for its release on HBO Max. I’m hoping that Goro finds his footing, and I’m going to root for him no matter what happens. We have seen directors who at one point may make a bad movie one year, and then the next one, they make a great film. Well, next time, we will be looking at a new cartoon show for Netflix, but I can’t tell you what it is until next time!
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Rating: Rent it!