Marking the first solo Studio Ghibli production since 2014 When Marnie Was There, there’s a lot of anticipation for Earwig and the Witch. Iconic director Hayao Miyazak has passed the baton to his son, who’s opted to break from the usual hand-drawn conventions and debut the first full 3D CG feature for the studio. Based on the children’s book of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones, the writer behind the fantastic Howl’s Moving Castle, the film is set to debut in the US on HBO Max.
Directed by Gorō Miyazaki, Earwig and the Witch centres on the young orphan Earwig (Taylor Henderson) as her life is upended following a strange and magical couple adopting her into their home. She soon discovers a new world full of magical spells and potions as she assists the witch Bella Yaga (Vanessa Marshall) with her orders from the local community. Amidst her daily tasks and cleaning, she finds a tape with her name scribbled on featuring a mysterious song linked to her past and her new family.
Opening with an exciting high-speed motorbike chase as Kacey Musgraves’ red headed witch casts a powerful spell to disarm her assailants, dropping her child off at an orphanage until she can shake off the council of witches, Earwig and the Witch sets up a very intriguing premise. Unfortunately this initial plot is more of a tease, as it’s abruptly sidelined to focus on her daughter Erica Wigg aka Earwig, as she is adopted by the mysterious couple Bella Yarga and Mandrake. Who are these oddball characters and why did they adopt her?
While I’m so glad to see Studio Ghibli back, this feature has unfortunately lost some of the soul and magic from previous instalments. The film draws an early comparison to Kiki’s Delivery Service as Earwig strikes up a friendship with the cute black cat Thomas, who helps teach her magic as an escape from her endless chores. However it feels as if there was a more interesting storyline with the mother trying to escape the clutches of the twelve witches, could Miyazaki have woven this into Earwig’s tale? When the plot finally kicks in at around the 75 minute mark, it abruptly ends with an exciting but frustrating cliffhanger – will there be a sequel to delve into the many unanswered questions?
The film features an impressive voice cast for the English dub including Richard E. Grant, Dan Stevens and Kacey Musgraves. The young orphan is very headstrong and mischievous, but has a bit of a sinister streak and is always looking for trouble, unlike previous Ghibli characters. Also out of character is Steven’s timid cat Tom, as felines in Ghibli films are usually headstrong and independent! Grant’s voice performance is by far the standout as the mysterious yet grumpy Mandrake, who forms an amusing dynamic with Earwig.
Long gone is the inventive and whimsical hand-drawn animation, replaced with a more modern CGI which admittedly takes a while to get used to. While Earwig is rather scary with her arching eyebrows and pointy pig tails, the animators have had much more fun with the Mandrake and Bella Yaga. His pointy ears and glowingly lit eyes are very creepy, and the numerous spells he casts when he’s angry or lost in the moment when playing his keyboard are a visual delight. The many potions and spells which are crafted in the house, usually involving wiggly worms or gross ingredients, I’m sure will prove hugely fun and icky for younger audiences.
However what really stands out is the music woven throughout the film, with the six-time Grammy winner Musgraves English-language version of the theme song, “Don’t Disturb Me” proving a real highlight. A couple of enjoyable musical performances are featured in the third act of the film, but I honestly could have done with more. The fun end credits also give us a teaser of their signature surrealist hand-drawn art with a number of fun scenes.
Feeling more like an extended short or one part of a larger series, Earwig and the Wig is a quirky but underdeveloped entry from the iconic animated powerhouse. Hopefully a potential sequel is in the works with more adventure and answers.