Hayao Miyazaki is not a fan of computer animation. Often noted is a scene from the documentary Never-Ending Man, in which he resolutely slams AI-generated CGI animation in particular. His dedication to (and sponsorship of) the artistry of hand-drawn animation is a major part of why Japanese CGI animation technology has been so slow to advance, while the country’s traditional 2D industry flourishes at home and abroad.
It is appropriate, then, that not he but his son, Gorō Miyazaki, directed Earwig and the Witch, the first computer-animated feature from Studio Ghibli. Earwig and the Witch is an energetic and enthusiastic tribute to the work of Gorō’s father that nevertheless asserts itself and pushes into a new frontier, signifying the studio’s own readiness to step out of the shadow of Hayao Miyazaki’s legacy.
Based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, also the author of Howl’s Moving Castle, Earwig and the Witch tells the story of Aya (localized as Erica), a mischievous and clever young girl who is adopted by the witch Bella Yaga and her mysterious companion, known only as “the Mandrake.” Aya is press-ganged into service as Bella Yaga’s magic assistant, helping her gather and prepare ingredients for an assortment of very pedestrian magic spells that she sells via a telephone hotline.
Dissatisfied with her role as a Cinderella and itching to learn some magic for herself, Aya enlists the help of Bella Yaga’s familiar, a black cat named Thomas, and turns the house upside down with her feisty attitude and talent for chaos.
On a surface level, Earwig and the Witch is one-hundred-percent classic Studio Ghibli. All the hallmarks are front and center. Aya is a strong and self-determinate young girl, Bella Yaga is a mean older lady with magic who conscripts the protagonist into some task, and Thomas is a dead ringer for Jiji from Kiki’s Delivery Service. The film takes place in a vaguely rural, small-town European setting, and there’s even a shot where someone cooks bacon. The film is eager to pay tribute to the studio’s prior work.
And yet, the film is also bursting at the seams with its own identity, asserting itself via contrast. Studio Ghibli movies are known for their peaceful and relaxing soundtracks, used by many a millennial as study music. Earwig and the Witch opts instead for rock and roll. The driving tempo and bright instrumentation infuse the film with a vibrant energy that contrasts immensely with the deliberation and steadiness of Ghibli films helmed by the elder Miyazaki.
Further emphasizing that energy is the animation, which moves with a particular cartoonish bounciness that prior Ghibli movies eschew in favor of realistic movement. If Hayao Miyazaki’s animation seeks to capture lifelike movements in 2D, Gorō Miyazaki’s chooses instead to fully embrace the exaggeration and expression that real-life lacks.
Nowhere is this expressiveness more evident than in our heroine, Aya, whose cute face masks her devious cunning and talent for flattery. Where prior Ghibli heroines like Kiki, Chihiro, and Sophie power through their struggles with gentle earnestness, Aya schemes, charms, and mouths off. Her antics speak to a much more direct rebelliousness than her forebears.
That rebelliousness, in turn, speaks to Gorō Miyazaki’s sometimes rocky relationship with his father. He received his first directing job without the blessing of his father, who believed that Gorō lacked the experience necessary to direct a feature. The film, Tales from Earthsea, proceeded to win not one but two Japanese Razzies, for “Worst Director” AND “Worst Movie” of 2006. It remains Ghibli’s lowest-rated movie. Both it and Gorō Miyazaki’s second feature, From Up on Poppy Hill, still bear a decisively Hayao Miyazaki aesthetic. Anyone could be forgiven for thinking it was the father, not the son, who made them.
Not so with Earwig and the Witch. More than anything, it feels like anyone besides Hayao Miyazaki was behind the wheel. This is at once a positive and a negative; at times, characters feel unmotivated, and the film seems to lack a strong overarching plot structure. The ending, in particular, leaves something to be desired. But like Aya, this movie is burning with a desire to learn its own magic, on its own terms. Earwig and the Witch is a film that is ready to show the world what Studio Ghibli can do without parental supervision, a departure from tradition that nevertheless respects its elders, and is a delight to watch.
Earwig and the Witch is available to stream on HBO Max on February 5th.