Earwig and the Witch (2021, HBOMax)
Earwig and the Witch (2021) Review 2.10.21:
When I die, I hope to be reincarnated as a Studio Ghibli character. Instead of darkness awaiting us, imagine awakening in the field of flowers from Howl’s Moving Castle, soaking in the bathhouse of Spirited Away, or floating along with Ponyo in the great Devonian sea. Yes, that is my idea of heaven. In fact, anytime I watch a Ghibli movie - whether it’s one I’ve seen before or something brand new - it takes me away from reality in a way that few other films can. These films satisfy our sense of escapism in the truest sense.
For those who are unfamiliar, Studio Ghibli is a Japanese animation studio that was originally created in 1985 by legendary artist, Hayao Miyazaki, alongside his partners Takahata Isao, and Suzuki Toshio. Miyazaki is particularly well known for being one of the first Japanese creators to achieve international acclaim with both Japanese and American audiences. His breakout film, My Neighbor Totoro, originally was released in 1988, wasn’t initially the cult classic it has become today. However, almost 30 years later, the film is an international sensation. In fact, the main character, Totoro, has become the icon that represents the Studio Ghibli at the beginning of every film. While Totoro is not even the most popular of Miyazaki’s magical creations, the amazing longevity and widespread appeal of this film is truly indicative of the powerful and lasting impression of the Studio Ghibli productions.
While Miyazaki’s ultimate claim to fame is his remarkably detailed, colorful and imaginative universes he creates for his characters, I believe one of his greatest strengths is the content of the stories themselves. In a way that comes off as effortlessly intuitive, Miyazaki often tells the stories of children, though they are not the typical stories you would expect for a young audience. These stories are nothing like Hollywood’s childhood classics, such as Cars (2006), Toy Story (1995), or Despicable Me (2010). Now don’t get me wrong, I love Toy Story as much as the next guy, and there's no doubt that there is a deeper narrative of adventure, friendship, and the preservation of childhood (i.e. never growing up). But there’s no denying that these films have a particular goofiness, an action-figure, caricature type energy that caters to the attention span of small children, as well as the pockets of their parents. This is where Miyazaki’s children’s stories differ greatly. I would be inclined to argue that Ghibli makes films for adults that speak to the child inside all of us. The characters in these narratives often deal with heavier subjects than that of Lightning McQueen or Buzz Lightyear.
In My Neighbor Totoro, for example, the main characters, young sisters Mei and Tatsuki struggle with the fact that their mother is in the hospital and they don’t know when she will return home. In the opening scenes of the film, Mei and Satsuki encounter sentient dust bunnies known in Japanese as Kami (forest spirits) in their house. Rather than being totally terrified, these spirits are met with curiosity by the two girls. It is this innocent curiosity and childlike wonder that leads Mei to discover Totoro, a gentle Kami who helps her find her way through the forest when she gets lost. One of Miyazaki’s most recent works, Ponyo and the Cliff by the Sea (2008), tells the story of a courageous young boy named Sasuke, and a darling young half-human, half-fish named Ponyo. This story gives a lot more credibility to children and what they are capable of than most films I have seen. It shows that kids are not only capable of taking care of each other, their parents, and themselves, but that they can experience true love in the purest form. Spirited Away, which happens to be the first Ghibli movie I saw (and possibly still my all time favorite), is centered around a brave young girl named Chirio, who is suddenly thrust into a world inhabited by spirits. To make matters worse, her parents are turned into pigs when their insatiable hunger leads them to partake in the spirit’s amazing feast (one of the best scenes ever). Because of her parent’s bad decisions, Chihiro is faced with the difficult task of rescuing them from Yubaba, a witch who runs a bathhouse for spirits in the realm. As you can see, Ghibli thrives in telling the stories where the children are not only the main focus, but the heroes of the narrative. As I said before, I think these tales appeal to the childlike wonder in all of us, while simultaneously bringing grown adults to tears amidst the tough emotional and physical journeys that these characters experience. And while I could certainly go on for hours - nay days - about the many facets of Ghibli that make them some of the best storytellers around, I will perhaps save this more in-depth analysis for a later time. The purpose of this review is to talk to you about their latest masterpiece, Earwig and The Witch, which was just released on HBO Max last week.
Earwig and the Witch (2021):
Having a background of Studio Ghibli and their finesse for telling deeply emotional children’s stories is important when considering Ghibli’s latest production, Earwig and the Witch. When I originally saw the trailer for this film a couple weeks ago, the first thing I noticed was that the animation style was noticeably different from the typical watercolor look that is so indicative of the Studio Ghibli style. The trailer had me wondering if this was going to be a dramatic departure from their typical design that I have come to love so much. Having seen the film, I must admit the trailer is good in the sense that it doesn’t tell you very much, and instead leaves you thoroughly intrigued. Not to mention, the title, Earwig and the Witch, is certainly provocative. If you hate earwigs as much as I do, then you might be worried that the story is about an actual earwig. Well dear readers and friends, I can assure you that this story is not about an actual earwig, but it certainly does relate back to the concept of an earwig in a different sense. And that’s all I’ll say on that topic in hopes of not spoiling too much.
Much in line with Ghibli’s other tales of children or young adults struggling to find themselves (Whispers of the Heart , When Marnie was There ), attempting to discover their own destiny (Castle in the Sky ), or trying to make peace between nature and humanity (Nausicca and the Valley of the WInd ), Earwig and the Witch tells a tale of a young orphan named Earwig, whose comfortable existence at the orphanage is disrupted when she is unexpectedly adopted by a strange looking woman and an even stranger looking man. Used to getting her way with everyone, Earwig becomes frustrated when she is forced to become a handmaiden to her new adopted mother, who turns out to be a blue haired witch. While she initially agrees to help the witch in exchange for magical teachings, Earwig starts to lose patience when the witch works her to no end without any intention of delivering on her promises. Confident that she could escape the house by the light of the moon, Earwig is met with surprise when she discovers that the front door she walked in through has disappeared. As it turns out, the man of the house is actually a magical Mandrake - one with a hot temper and an absolute hatred for being disturbed. Earwig soon realizes that escape may not be an option, or that it would at least prove to be a difficult task. Keeping close tabs on both the witch and the Mandrake, Earwig attempts to come up with an idea to manipulate the two of them.
While the Mandrake has a spicy temper, Earwig soon discovers that he seems to have a sensitive side as well. While he is a complex magical being, he seems to have a weakness for food, and he writes and plays the organ in his secret to his favorite album “Don’t Disturb Me,” by Earwig. Curious about the title, Earwig steals the album and sings the theme to herself when the going gets tough with the witch, completely unaware of her own mysterious relation to the band. Teaming up with the witch’s familiar, a black cat named Thomas, who also suffers from the witch's abuse, Earwig devises a strategy to retaliate against the witch and get the Mandrake on her side - but it won’t be easy.
I believe that the true mark of a good film is when it ends, you are wishing that it wasn’t over. This was certainly the case with Earwig and the Witch for me. I was so far away in the story that when it was over, I was abruptly jolted back to reality. It would appear to me that, despite the stylistic/animation differences of this film when compared with other Ghibli classics, director Goro Miyazkai (Hayao’s son) has taken after his dad in terms of both character building and storytelling prowess. The film was full of scenes that highlight the banality of everyday life, such as the cooking and cleaning scenes that are so gratifying in Ghibli movies. They do a fantastic job of capturing the little things that make life special, and often pass us by. My favorite teacher in highschool, my speech and debate coach, Tony Myers, had a saying that has stuck with me for a long time. He always said something along the lines of, “A good story or performance should make you laugh, cry, and think.” Reflecting on Earwig and the Witch, I can say that it ticked all three boxes for me. While I must admit that I am a Ghibli diehard, and might be a little biased when it comes to their films, I believe that Earwig and the Witch offered a fun new adventure for all audiences. My only complaint really, is that it was too short! I felt the ending came without much warning, though I feel that this was possibly an intentional choice on the director’s part. Either that, or they were setting up for a sequel, which I am very much here for. Overall, I felt the story and the characters were refreshing, and that the film captured the essence of the Ghibli craft while offering up a distinctly different storytelling structure. As always, I will be looking forward to seeing the future works created by Goro Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli with the same degree of anticipation that some fans await the new Marvel flicks. These works only grow better with time and more viewings, which makes them a very special rarity in the age of one hit wonders and Hollywood hits that cater to the box office. It is clear that the legacy Miyazaki created back in 1988 with My Neighbor Totoro will long outlast him, continuing to inspire audiences of all ages for decades to come.