Earwig and the Witch (Âya to majo)


Which is the witch?

(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)

David Brent: Life on the Road


David Brent is his own biggest fan.

(2016) Comedy (Netflix) Ricky Gervais, Ben Bailey “Doc Brown” Smith, Jo Hartley, Tom Basden, Mandeep Dhillon, Abbie Murphy, Andrew Brooke, Tom Bennett, Rebecca Gethings, Andy Burrows, Stuart Wilkinson, Steve Clarke, Michael Clarke, Nina Sosanya, Stacha Hicks, Kevin Bishop, Alexander Arnold, Dermot Keaney, Diane Morgan. Directed by Ricky Gervais

 

Most Americans are aware of the version of the sitcom The Office that starred Steve Carell and a fair amount of them are probably aware that it was based on a British version starring Ricky Gervais. Much fewer of the American audience have probably ever seen any of the British episodes and fewer still will likely have enjoyed it; certainly it is an acquired taste and although it shares many attributes with the American version, the two are quite different.

David Brent (Gervais) was the boss in The Office but he’s fallen on hard times. He works as a salesman of toilet cleaning products for a company called Lavichem and although he turns a somewhat upbeat face to it, one can tell that he is not satisfied at all with the way things have turned out. He’s bullied mercilessly by fellow salesman Jezza (Brooke) and is often the subject of serious conversations with HR manager Miriam Clark (Gethings).

He isn’t without admirers though, like Nigel (Bennett) who looks up to him as a comic mentor, or hopelessly besotted Pauline (Hartley) and the sweet receptionist Karen (Dhillon).  Still, Brent can’t help but feel as if his destiny is passing him by and that destiny is to be – a rock star. So, he assembles a second version of his original band Foregone Conclusion (which includes We are Scientists drummer Andy Burrows) and taking unpaid leave from Lavichem hits the road to do ten dates in the Midlands….all within a few hours’ drive of his flat in London. Along for the unwilling ride is Dom Johnson (Brown), a fairly talented rapper whom David brings along for the street cred he miserably lacks and whom David generally refuses to allow to perform except to use David’s abhorrent lyrics. Cashing out his pension, David undergoes financing the entire tour himself, much to the concern of sound engineer/road manager Andy Chapman (Chapman).

David’s tendency is to blurt out whatever comes to mind without first passing it through a filter, following it with a sort of strangled giggle as if to say “Oh dear, what have I gone and said now?” as a kind of embarrassed signature. He stops conversations dead with his pronouncements and off-the-wall observations that betray sexism and bigotry that most people have the good sense to keep to themselves if they possess those tendencies at all.

True to form, he alienates everyone in his band to the point where they force him not to join them on the tour bus he rented but to follow in his own car behind it. They refuse to dress with him, forcing him to have his own dressing room. The songs that he writes for them to play are pretty awful and the band is humiliated at gig after gig; the only saving grace is that nobody is showing up at them and those that do are drawn out of curiosity to Brent’s quasi-fame (the film treats The Office as a documentary which of course it was made to resemble) and most leave well before the gig is over.

Against all odds, one ends up feeling a kind of sympathy for Brent. He’s the guy who doesn’t realize that he is the joke and nobody is laughing. Still, he soldiers on either because he’s oblivious or refuses to let it get him down. There is a kind of nobility in that which is fascinating, because believe me Brent says some of the vilest things. There is a whole sequence around the “N” word that takes uncomfortable to new levels.

This is a comedy of awkward silences. There is no laugh track and no incidental music, just like the sitcom. The silence serves to make the audience feel more and more uncomfortable which I suppose is a form of humor. In its time it was innovative although it seems a bit dated now. The problem is that the movie doesn’t really add anything to what’s already out there; although Gervais has gone to great pains to distance this project from The Office, his presence essentially makes the sitcom the elephant in the room by default. That begs the question; why did this film need to get made? Some fans will just be happy to see Brent back in the saddle but others will need more than that.

In general, those who adored the British version of The Office will likely enjoy this or at least be interested in checking it out. Those who found the show puzzling will likely not find any insights here that will change their minds. It’s definitely an acquired taste and those who have not yet acquired it should probably give this a miss. Otherwise, those who have might find something here worth ingesting although they likely won’t find it as good as the original.

REASONS TO GO: Gervais actually manages to make Brent somewhat sympathetic. Fans of the British Office will find this right up their alley.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s a very acquired taste, just like the original The Office. It’s an hour and 36 minutes of awkward.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual innuendo and drug humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although David Brent is depicted driving a car on numerous occasions in the film, Ricky Gervais actually doesn’t know how to drive.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Office (BBC Version)
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Burning Sands