The Failure of Studio Ghibli’s First 3-D Animated Film Reminds Us of What Makes Our Favourite Ghibli Movies So Magical12 min readReading Time: 8 minutes
Studio Ghibli, the animation studio that propelled Japanese anime into the mainstream and saw unprecedented success internationally, released its first 3-D animated film earlier this year titled Earwig and the Witch. Directed by Goro Miyazaki, son of the studio’s legendary filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, the film seemed like a massive leap for Ghibli.
The film is pretty straightforward — our main character Earwig, renamed Erica Wig by the orphanage that takes her in, is adopted by a witch named Bella Yaga and a demon entity called the Mandrake. Since the film’s release, reviews have not been good. Critics have pinned the blame on the 3-D animation and it’s easy to see why. But aside from the animation, it was also clear that the film had many other glaring issues.
When I watch bad western adaptations of classic anime shows like Ghost in the Shell, I find myself reminded of exactly what makes the originals work in the first place. I had a similar feeling when watching Earwig and the Witch. Funnily enough, Earwig and the Witch is an adaptation too, not an original story. But like most people who have seen the film, I have never read the children’s book that the movie was based on. Instead, I found myself comparing the film to Ghibli’s other works, most notably Spirited Away and Kiki’s Delivery Service — the two films that I felt bore a huge resemblance to Earwig and the Witch.
With every issue that I took with Earwig, I found myself longing for the magic of Spirited Away and Kiki’s Delivery Service, which reminds me of the what-could-have-been and all the wasted potential here.
Ghibli is known for their strong female leads. Hayao Miyazaki said of his own movies that he strives to portray “brave, self-sufficient girls that don’t think twice about fighting for what they believe with all their heart. They’ll need a friend, or a supporter, but never a saviour. Any woman is just as capable of being a hero as any man.”
So what sort of protagonist does Earwig and the Witch present us with? Perhaps an orphan girl who is able to prove she is strong and independent? Or a girl who stands up for herself and refuses to be made use of by others? Or maybe even a girl whose intellect helps her rise above every obstacle she meets?
No, we get none of the above. Earwig is incredibly unlikable as a main character. She aspires to make everyone do what she wants her to so that she will never have to do anything that she personally doesn’t want to. As a result, she is spoiled, manipulative, and scheming. Despite her situation, her problematic personality runs so deep that it’s difficult to feel any sympathy for her.
Ghibli’s protagonists guide us through their stories. They tap on our curiosity and open our eyes to their world. They bring us on their adventures and introduce us to new places. There is also a moment when her best friend at the orphanage, Custard, asks Earwig if she has ever wished someone would adopt her and she confidently tells him, “nope”. This line alone spoke volumes to me of Earwig’s lack of curiosity and by extension any true personality beyond her desire to be able to control those around her.
On the outside, Earwig still seems just like the other Ghibli leads. She is headstrong, she has some unique hair design, and she is independent. But past the surface level, Earwig is a complete formula break. She spends a lot of the film harping on about how much she misses Custard, and how having to leave him is the main reason she is reluctant to be adopted in the first place. She shows little character growth over the course of the film and does practically nothing to prove herself. The ending enables and justifies Earwig’s toxic personality and it almost feels like if you were watching a superhero movie and at the end the villain comes out triumphant.
Aside from the orphanage, most of the film takes place in Bella Yaga’s house, specifically her potion room. At times, it feels suffocating and claustrophobic because the film has created this sense of imprisonment within its setting. There is little to be known about this world that the film exists in.
Earwig narrates all her thoughts out loud to us without much nuance. It almost feels insulting to the audience how dumbed-down the script is written where there is not a moment where Earwig isn’t spelling out the situation and her thoughts to the audience. It’s hard to live in a world that is being narrated to us on a very superficial level rather than simply letting us conjure the emotions tied to the setting and creating a depth to the scene beyond its visual image.
This is not helped either by the lack of detail in the settings. Earwig’s bedroom doesn’t have anything more than a generic-looking bed and nightstand. On top of that, we only see brief moments that last mere seconds of Earwig completing meaningless tasks like brushing her teeth.
The 3-D animation also lacks the natural movement of Ghibli’s 2-D works. The settings and characters in Earwig and the Witch are all stiff and feel like plastic. Earwig mostly uses two expressions in the whole movie and that’s about it. The whole house feels like a set you would build in a children’s stage play, or a Playmobil house that just manages to convince you of what it’s supposed to be, or even just a green screen that the actors are standing against. The house almost struggles to leave any sort of impression for viewers to remember.
Ghibli films take their time to let us appreciate the world they have built, allowing us to ponder what the characters are thinking and feeling in that moment. In Spirited Away we see Chihiro eating a snack while looking out at the ocean, thinking about the world of spirits she has found herself in and where the train tracks in the water lead to. Or in Kiki’s Delivery Service, the film slows down to show us Kiki falling sick and how she feels sluggish and miserable.
In Spirited Away, even though a large portion of the film takes place in the bathhouse, it still feels full of life and you can believe that the spirits live and work here. We get to see the characters in simple yet different moments such as when the workers navigate the elevators in the bathhouse, or when they are sleeping at night.
Film commentator Karsten Runquist perhaps put it best — Ghibli food looks better than real food, Ghibli grass looks more luscious than real grass, Ghibli clothes look softer than real clothes, and Ghibli fire somehow looks hotter than real fire. Ghibli’s artistry is so detailed that the way objects or people move and the colour palettes chosen are all carefully thought out to add to the artistic expression of their films. It almost makes the audience want to live in the world they have created.
Yet all of these, which are the very foundation of Ghibli’s magical feel, are absent in Earwig and the Witch.
Joe Hisaishi is to Hayao Miyazaki what John Williams is to Steven Spielberg. Joe Hisaishi has composed the soundtrack for all but one of Hayao Miyazaki’s film and his music creates the soundscapes to some of Ghibli’s most iconic films, including Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, My Neighbour Totoro, and Kiki’s Delivery Service.
Hisaishi’s style is light in production, sometimes opting for nothing more than the sound of a piano, such as in “One Summer’s Day”, and yet it feels heavy in emotion. His music makes the audience feel nostalgia for places they have never been to, and carries a balanced duality of sorrow and longing. It’s hard to picture Ghibli films without Joe Hisaishi’s score. Although he rarely works with the studio’s other directors, his musical storytelling in Hayao Miyazaki’s films are recognised as just as crucial as their visual storytelling.
For longtime Ghibli fans, it may come as a surprise that Joe Hisaishi’s score is missing from Earwig and the Witch. Instead, the film very clearly goes for a more pop-rock sound that somewhat ties into the plot but also subverts expectations of a powerful orchestral accompaniment to the story. The absence of Hisaishi’s score in Earwig and the Witch also means the absence of emotional depth — audiences only see a story but don’t feel it.
Deviating from the typical orchestral sound is not necessarily a recipe for disaster. In fact, many successful anime films in recent years have embraced a modern rock sound such as Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name which was scored by Japanese rock band RADWIMPS. Your Name’s soundtrack was able to bring out an upbeat liveliness when setting up the premise of the film and also tug at the audience’s heartstrings in its climactic moments. The gentle yet intricate guitar work and lead singer Yojiro Noda’s vocals conveyed the feelings of the characters in the scenes. It also works in the context of the film which takes place in modern-day Tokyo with our teenage protagonists.
The score of Earwig and the Witch is forgettable at best. It never relates to the characters nor does it challenge our understanding of the story. It almost seems like the change in musical direction was done without much intent beyond attempting something different. A good score or even a bad score can make you feel something, but a forgettable one just leaves the picture feeling soulless.
Earwig and the Witch is very much a representation of Goro Miyazaki as a director, and his journey into becoming one. One can imagine the sort of pressure Goro Miyazaki faced to live up to his father’s name and the difficulty of being in his shadow, but Hayao Miyazaki had the potential to groom his son into his protege and be a mentor to a new generation that would carry on the Ghibli legacy.
And yet, things could not have turned out more differently. Goro Miyazaki originally shied away from walking the same path as his father so he became a landscape designer. But he was later pressured into directing Tales From Earthsea by Ghibli head Toshio Suzuki despite having no directing experience. Hayao Miyazaki, who was directing Howl’s Moving Castle at the time, deemed his son too inexperienced to take on the role of a director and instead of guiding his son, he refused to speak to him for a long time. When Tales From Earthsea was released, it fell short of becoming a Ghibli classic like Hayao Miyazaki’s other works. In fact, the film’s below-average reception inspired Hayao Miyazaki to scrap his retirement plans and continue making films to uphold the Ghibli name.
In the interesting way that the world works, Howl’s Moving Castle was actually based on a novel by the same author behind the original Earwig and the Witch novel. Since the release of Tales From Earthsea revealed the tension in the father-son relationship, Goro Miyazaki went on to direct From Up On Poppy Hill with his father as the scriptwriter. The film fared significantly better and seemed like a step in the right direction for the young director.
Now on his third film, some may still consider Goro Miyazaki an inexperienced director. His desire to use 3-D animation for Earwig and the Witch was interesting, to say the least. The seasoned veterans at Ghibli were way out of their depth to chip in on the project and Goro Miyazaki had to take on a team of young animators who were new to the studio. Goro Miyazaki was allowed to have free rein over the project, but he also had little guidance from the studio as a result. There was probably little that the experienced hand-drawn animators felt like they could say about a 3-D animated film anyway.
The end result is a film that seems confused in what it wants to convey and perhaps a reflection on Goro Miyazaki’s own confused identity as a director. First pushed into the role out of pressure and now, three films later, he still struggles to live up to his father’s legacy. It’s unclear whether his journey as a director is truly shaped by stories he wishes to tell, or if he is caught up in meeting the expectations placed upon him by others.
If Goro Miyazaki wishes to continue as a filmmaker, there is a lot of self-reflection that needs to happen on his part, but perhaps also a lot of guidance on his father’s. For now, he seems to be focusing his attention on the construction of the upcoming Ghibli theme park. With him back in his element as a landscape designer, perhaps Goro Miyazaki will have the opportunity to decide for himself what he truly wishes to do and what sort of legacy he wants to leave behind.