Earwig is not like the other kids at St Morwald’s Home for Children. She delights in scary nighttime games in the local churchyard, adores orphanage food, and unlike her parent-craving friends, has no desire to be adopted – she likes things just the way they are. So when she’s taken home by an imperious, blue-haired local called Bella Yaga and her towering, devilish companion Mandrake, she’s less than thrilled. Earwig’s new ‘mother’ is a neighbourhood witch, and she sets Earwig to work grinding rats’ bones, picking hellebore and slicing snakeskins. A fair trade, Earwig reasons, if Bella Yaga will teach her magic, but the girl soon finds she’s both a prisoner and a slave in her new home. And she’s not going to stand for it.
The third Studio Ghibli film from Goro Miyazaki, son of revered director Hayao, is the first to eschew choppy hand-drawn animation for smooth CGI. The outrage has been great among many longtime fans, and while seeing those familiar Ghibli-style faces fully rendered in three dimensions has novelty value, there’s little other advantage. But the way Earwig (which was actually made for Japanese TV) sacrifices Ghibli’s visual USP is less of a problem than the way it surrenders the studio’s accustomed emotional beats.
The latest in a long line of girlish Ghibli protagonists, Earwig has little in common with the benevolent teen witch of Kiki’s Delivery Service – except for her closeness to a cute, talking black cat – and she’s way meaner than Chihiro, the girl forced to work in a bathhouse for the gods in Spirited Away. Her upturned pigtails on her head could denote an earwig’s mandibles, or equally, Mephistophelean horns, and the way she sets out to outsmart the witch and her demonic partner leaves no doubt that she’s a force to be reckoned with. Earwig’s mother, we are told, was a rock’n’roller who fell afoul of a coven of witches, but the girl seems interested in the mystery of her parentage more as an intellectual exercise than to fill any void in her heart. Does she even have one?
To be fair, there’s something exhilarating about the film’s refusal to bow to sentimental expectation, which is attributable to the source material: the final novel by British fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones, who also wrote the book Howl’s Moving Castle is based on. (The movie’s inconclusive ending suggests that Wynne Jones had earmarked Earwig for many more adventures.) There’s exhilaration, too, in the groovy songs performed by Earwig’s mother’s band in flashbacks, a whirl of grungy guitars, Hammond keyboards and flying tresses of red hair. It’s a film with earworms, at least.
Available on HBO Max in the US (English-language version) from Feb 5 and in cinemas in Australia (subtitled) from Feb 4. Out in UK and Irish cinemas May 28.