‘Earwig and the Witch’ Review: Studio Ghibli’s First CG Outing Is Missing the Magic

Erica Wigg, the main character of Goro Miyazaki’s made-for-TV feature “Earwig and the Witch,” is both a brat and an orphan. Those two traits seldom go together in children’s stories, and the combination provides a modest starting point for this intermittently amusing CG entry from Studio Ghibli — back in business but a shadow of its former glory. Erica also happens to be the daughter of a rock-star sorceress, who dropped her on the stoop of St. Morwald’s Home for Children with a note: “Got the other 12 witches all chasing me. I’ll be back for her when I’ve shook them off. It may take years.”

It will take closer to 75 minutes, actually, at which point the movie abruptly ends without providing any sense of those adventures. Judging by the opening motorcycle chase — in which this witch (voiced by Kacey Musgraves in the GKIDS-produced, HBO Max-streaming English dub) uses her flaming red, corkscrew-shaped hair to cast an impressive spell — it’s almost certain that whatever Erica’s high-speeding, spell-casting absentee mom is doing off-screen must be a lot more exciting than what her daughter (Taylor Paige Henderson) is up to. Sneaking around and complaining, mostly.

Alas, we’re stuck with this impudent urchin for the length of this movie, and while the story doesn’t feel terribly original, Erica’s attitude manages to set her apart from such relatively well-behaved orphans as Harry Potter and Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Earwig (the character’s real name, as well as the inspiration for the twin pincer-shaped ponytails sticking up on either side of her head) has positively no interest in being adopted, leaving it to St. Morwald’s other charges to impress any prospective parents who stop by “shopping” for kids.

The couple that pick her have another agenda altogether. Cobalt-coiffed Bella Yaga (Vanessa Marshall) is a witch who wants a servant to assist with her spells, while her husband (more of a demonic domestic partner, really) would rather be left alone. That’s the one rule Earwig is expected to mind in her new home: Do not disturb Mandrake (Richard E. Grant), or he’ll sprout horns and “the most awful things will happen.” But she’s much too busy being disobedient to heed such warnings.

Earwig wants to learn magic, so she makes Bella Yaga promise to teach her. But she’s dismayed by the endless list of chores that await her, conspiring with her guardian’s familiar — a talking black cat named Thomas — to teach herself a few spells. Ghibli fans will no doubt be reminded of “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” about another underage witch with a faithful feline sidekick, although “Earwig” isn’t nearly as charming, despite its having been drawn from a Diana Wynne Jones novel.

Jones is the British fantasy author who wrote “Howl’s Moving Castle,” although director Hayao Miyazaki did a great deal to make that adaptation his own. Here, his son Goro (who’s helmed both feature and TV projects for his dad’s company) doesn’t show much in the way of original ideas. Oddly, though the movie’s digital style is technically more modern than Ghibli’s previous hand-rendered features, “Earwig” looks far more primitive, with much of the labor farmed out to computer-animation teams around the world, but with virtually none of the distinctive surrealist touches that have become the studio’s signature.

For years, animation mavens have been debating whether Pixar or Ghibli was the more gifted animation studio, which was a fairly abstract argument when the techniques were different. But now that the latter has produced its first fully CG feature, there’s just no comparison. “Earwig” is inferior on nearly every level, looking barely better than a small-screen special (which, admittedly, it is, having been commissioned for and broadcast on Japanese network NHK on Dec. 30, 2020). But it’s the storytelling that feels most anemic.

After being miserable in her new home for not even an hour, Earwig announces that she can make her new parents do whatever she says. Something’s clearly missing, and the most obvious answer is magic, both on-screen and in the project’s conception. Pencil sketches over the end credits point to all sorts of scenes that didn’t make the cut while reminding how much better characters look when drawn by hand. Bella Yaga and Mandrake are relatively interesting to look at, but Earwig simply isn’t an appealing character, her expressions limited by her permanently arched eyebrows and plastic-looking face.

One thing “Earwig” has going for it is the musical component, opening as it does with her mom singing original number “Don’t Disturb Me” as she races down the highway. Miyazaki weaves snippets of the song throughout the film as clues to Earwig’s origins, seizing on a strategy that’s worked well for other recent anime hits (such as “Your Name” and “Ride Your Wave”). Most of Ghibli’s previous movies have instrumental scores, but this one feels more modern in its use of pop music — even if the poster, which shows Earwig rocking out, has virtually nothing to do with the film.

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