Op-Ed: Earwig and the Witch fails to enchant

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This reporter watched Earwig and the Witch from HBO Max and did not visit a theater.

Jonah Dietz, Senior Reporter

Studio Ghibli easily stands alongside Pixar and Disney as one of the most influential, awe-inspiring and gorgeous creators of animated entertainment the world has ever known. Many of their characters have fused themselves into the cultural consciousnesses of multiple generations and are as recognizable and as beloved as Mickey Mouse and Buzz Lightyear. The studio’s best-known movie, “Spirited Away”, won so many awards, including the Academy Award for best animated film in 2003, that a list of them would take up the rest of this article. And in a landscape of mostly 3-D computer animation films, Ghibli has continued to pioneer and wow with traditional 2-D hand-drawn films that remind audiences of the merits and unique beauty of seemingly antiquated techniques. That is, until this year.

“Earwig and the Witch” marks Studio Ghibli’s first completely computer animated feature film and is being heralded by many as their worst.

The movie is based on the novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones and was adapted to the screen by Keiko Niwa and Emi Gunji. It was directed by Goro Miyazaki, son of prolific writer, animator and director and internationally acclaimed co-founder of Studio Ghibli Hayao Miyazaki. It centers around the orphan named Earwig, who is abandoned at an orphanage and later adopted by a witch. In the care of this magical and neglectful guardian and her mandrake compatriot, Earwig learns to cast spells and manipulate her would-be captors into a life of leisure and whimsical luxury. If that plot description seems lacking in conflict and excitement, the actual movie does so even more. It may be difficult to understand the level of disappointment this film should leave one at if one has not seen the studio’s previous work. Where “Howl’s Moving Castle” and “Ponyo” submerge the audience in unbelievably fluid and abstractly absurd worlds of magic and strange danger, “Earwig” simply takes the viewer into a small house and has them sit around dully as a stiffly-animated little girl walks around doing tedious chores and talks to a cat. Where films like “The Secret World of Arrietty” and “Spirited Away” find interesting avenues within established cultural folklore and well-known story tropes to explore, “Earwig” trudges through a tired concept and avoids any nuanced twists that may have arisen.

This isn’t an opinion that arises from a computer animation phobia. Fans of both Ghibli movies and good cinema alike are on board with a different approach and a risky endeavor is always worth a good result. What perhaps makes the animation of the film so irksome is not its medium but its failure to pioneer it. There is little doubt that the creators behind the beloved works of fiction the production company has constructed could make something mind-blowing and enduring. However, now that doubt will have grown and future risks of this kind may have been stifled. That is never a good result when a film bombs and is not what I hope this article comes across as. This is not a cry for less innovation but a plea that future innovations do their pioneering in different directions. The 2018 film “Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse” won both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for best animated film and proved that the computer animation world had many new and exciting things to offer moviegoers. Studio Ghibli can make a movie like it. But “Earwig and the Witch” is not that movie.

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