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The Studio Ghibli faithful will unlikely be swept away by Earwig and the Witch (definitely not to be confused with Hedwig and the Angry Inch), a pronounced departure from tradition that proves dispiritingly generic in both appearance and tone.
Directed by Goro Miyazaki — his acclaimed father Hayao, receives a “planning” credit here — the studio’s first feature in four years is also the first to forego its trademark hand-drawn, two-dimensional animation with full-blown 3D CG that feels as jarringly intrusive as it does coldly anonymous.
RELEASE DATE Feb 05, 2021
As with Howl’s Moving Castle before it, the source material comes from a children’s book of the same name by British author Diana Wynne Jones (in this case posthumously published after her 2011 death), but the disjointed storytelling here also falls short of the usual expectations.
An official selection of the 2020 Cannes Film Festival, airing on Japan’s NHK in December, the English-language version of the production, featuring the voices of Richard E. Grant and country singer Kacey Musgraves, will play in select theaters starting Feb. 3 via GKIDS and Fathom Events and subsequently stream on HBO Max as of Feb. 5.
Set in 1990s rural England, the story follows the (mis)adventures of a plucky young girl (Taylor Paige Henderson) who had been dropped off as a baby on the steps of an orphanage by her flame-haired rocker chick mom (Musgraves). The latter leaves a cryptic note reading, “Got the other 12 witches all chasing me. I’ll be back when I’ve shook them off.”
Earwig, renamed Erica by the motherly matron (Pandora Colin), contentedly has the run of the place by the time she’s relocated to the foster home of deeply unpleasant witch Bella Yaga (Vanessa Marshall), accompanied by her better half, a towering, brooding, demonic presence known as The Mandrake (Grant). Put to work tidying up the filthy laboratory where Bella Yaga has a business mixing potions and casting spells for neighboring clients, Erica/Earwig manages to split her time between a mountain of chores and uncovering the mystery behind a cassette tape bearing her name.
You can’t fault Miyazaki, who previously directed the well-received Studio Ghibli feature, From Up on Poppy Hill, for attempting to move the 35-year-old animation house in some fresh creative directions; he likely had a model in mind that was more along the edgier lines of a Laika.
Unfortunately, despite the occasional lively visual touches, and a playfully out-of-character ’70s prog rock score by Satoshi Takebe, the ghoulish display too often conjures up a standard-issue Hotel Transylvania rather than an inspired Coraline.
Likewise an adaptation, credited to Keiko Niwa and Emi Gunji, that adds its own frustrating tangle of loose ends to a Harry Potter-esque story that already felt like a bit of a muddle. At the time of the book’s release, one reviewer noted that while it starts out promisingly with all the trademarks of the late Jones’ writing, “it feels unfinished and not quite fully developed.” Unfortunately, those sentiments also apply to this less than enchanting Studio Ghibli offering.
Production companies: Studio Ghibli, NHK, NEP
English voice cast: Vanessa Marshall, Richard E. Grant, Dan Stevens, Taylor Paige Henderson, Kacey Musgraves
Director: Goro Miyazaki
Screenwriters: Keiko Niwa, Emi Gunji
Based on the by Diana Wynne Jones
Producer: Toshio Suzuki
Executive producers: Isao Yoshikuni, Keisuke Tsuchihashi, Koji Hoshino, Kiyofumi Nakajima
Music: Satoshi Takebe
Rated PG, 82 minutes
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