(2020) Animated Feature (GKIDS) Starring the voices of Dan Stevens, Richard E. Grant, Taylor Henderson, Vanessa Marshall, Kacey Musgraves, Logan Hannan, Pandora Colin, JB Blanc, Thomas Bromhead, Alex Cartañá, Summer Jenkins, Eva Kaminski, Sherina Munafu, Vivienne Richardson. Directed by Gorô Miyazaki
For anime fans, Studio Ghibli is the apex predator, much in the same way Pixar was to computer animation early on (and, some would argue, still is). But while Pixar has specialized in computer generated animation, Studio Ghibli was strictly hand-drawn. That is, until this made-for-TV entry by founder Hayao Miyazaki’s son, based on a posthumously-published novel by Howl’s Moving Castle author Diane Wynne Jones.
A baby is dropped off at St. Morwad’s orphanage by a red-haired witch (Musgraves) who leaves a note that she is being chased by 12 witches and will be back to pick up her child once she shakes off the pursuit, which, she warns, may take years. That baby grows up to be Earwig (Henderson), a somewhat manipulative and not always lovable tyke who has the orphanage running to her specifications and is in no hurry to leave it. She tells fellow orphan Custard (Hannan) as much, shortly before being adopted by Bella Yaga (Marshall), a corpulent blue-haired witch and her domestic partner, the demonic Mandrake (Grant) who is quick to anger and, she is warned, will do awful things if not left alone.
Bella Yaga isn’t looking for a daughter so much as she’s looking for an assistant – slave labor would be more like it – and Earwig balks at the idea of giving away her work for nothing. HOWEVER…if Bella Yaga is willing to teach her spellcraft, things might just work out after all. In any case, Earwig wants to control her new “parents” the same way she controlled the orphanage – only this will take some real magic. When Bella Yaga proves to be less than forthcoming in terms of lessons, Earwig teaches herself, aided by the feline familiar Thomas (Stevens).
Earwig isn’t one of Wynne Jones’ better novels and whereas pappy Hayao fleshed out Howl’s Moving Castle with his own personality and feeling, scion Goro doesn’t really do the same here. There are a few scenes giving Earwig’s mother some back story, but other than that, things are mainly as written. The computer animation, mostly farmed out to contractors around the world, is mainly uneven despite an opening sequence of Earwig’s mom being chased on a motorcycle through traffic that is absolutely brilliant. After that, this turns out more like direct-to-video CGI complete with plastic skin tones, stiff facial expressions and robot-like movement.
While there are some moments of whimsy and humor that are the trademark of Ghibli productions, the main issue here is Earwig herself. She’s not very likable. She’s controlling, selfish, uber-manipulative and often sneers at the adults she has under her thumb behind their backs. It makes for not a very attractive character and it makes it hard for viewers to like her and root for her.
Still, as a Studio Ghibli production, there is quality here, albeit not as much as you’re used to seeing in the course of most of their other productions. One gets the sense that Goro is trying to impress or perhaps outdo his father by taking on productions that are similar thematically to those his father was famous for, but he doesn’t seem to have a knack for it. Perhaps Goro would be wiser to try making features that please himself first and worry about dear old dad afterwards. It’s perhaps not fair to compare him to his father, who is essentially the Walt Disney of Japanese animation, but Goro invites those comparisons by doing projects like this one. I don’t think that this is necessarily a bad production – it really is meant for a younger audience than most Studio Ghibli films – but compared to their high standards it doesn’t quite reach the bar.
REASONS TO SEE: Plenty of that sly Studio Ghibli humor.
REASONS TO AVOID: Surprisingly uneven and Earwig is far too annoying to be relatable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film from Studio Ghibli to be completely computer animated.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/12/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Witches
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Blithe Spirit (2021)