Once upon a time, some very sadistic representatives from the Dwango Artificial Intelligence Laboratory decided that it would be a good idea to invite Studio Ghibli co-founder Miyazaki Hayao — cinema’s greatest animator, in addition to being one of its most reliable curmudgeons and a living emblem of the fanatical artistry that certain forces are trying to squeeze out of the film business however they can — to watch a grotesque demo of artificially intelligent animation.
There’s a good chance that you already know what happened next, as the video clip of Miyazaki’s withering reaction went so viral that it’s probably been seen by more people than some of his actual movies. The footage is like a snuff film in which nobody dies: “I strongly feel that this is an insult to life itself” the master says to the reverent pupil sitting across from him, Miyazaki delivering his verdict with such clear disdain that you can practically see the younger man’s soul leaving his body in real-time.
To watch “Earwig and the Witch” — Studio Ghibli’s first fully 3D computer-generated feature, and its first feature of any sort since the informal pause that followed 2014’s “When Marnie Was There” — is to know how Miyazaki felt that day. While “Earwig and the Witch” is far from the ugliest film of its kind, there’s something uniquely perverse about seeing Ghibli’s signature aesthetic suffocated inside a plastic coffin and sapped of its brilliant soul; about seeing the studio’s lush green worlds replaced by lifeless backdrops, and its hyper-expressive character designs swapped out for cheap dolls so devoid of human emotion that even the little kids look Botoxed with an inch of their lives. This is the cartoon equivalent of that botched Jesus fresco, only lacking the human touch that gave that debacle some perverse charm of its own.
And “Earwig and the Witch” is nothing if not eager to be seen in the context of the Ghibli classics that came before it. Directed by Miyazaki’s son, Goro (whose maligned “Tales from Earthsea” and wistful “From Up on Poppy Hill” have made him something of a pariah among Ghibli fans, and called frequent attention to his fraught relationship with his dad), “Earwig” is based on a children’s novel by Diana Wynne Jones, the same author the elder Miyazaki adapted for “Howl’s Moving Castle.”
The paper-thin story about a precocious young witch who’s adopted by a magical couple and befriends their talking black cat is so broadly reminiscent of “Kiki’s Delivery Service” that the film can’t help but feel defined by the same past it’s trying to pave over. To that end, many of the the visual motifs in “Earwig” — from its sunny English setting to the big-haired matrons who rule over its musty Victorian houses — call such direct and specific comparison to Ghibli iconography that it sometimes feels as if Goro Miyazaki wasn’t trying to make a new movie so much as he was trying to build a wax monument to several old ones.
But “Earwig,” which, in all fairness, was made for Japanese television and produced on a budget to match, would have been bottom-of-the-barrel Ghibli even if it were the most gorgeous thing the studio had ever churned out. The trouble starts with the source material — as Jones’ plot-light book creates a space for the imagination that Goro Miyazaki’s adaptation fills in for its audience — but the film begins on its strongest foot. A curly-haired woman bombs down a moonlit highway on her motorbike as she tries to shake the clown car full of bad guys who are racing to keep up (the radiator of their vehicle softens into tentacles with such an unmistakably Ghibli wiggle that it might leave fans with an ounce of false hope).
And it’s a good thing she gets away in one piece, because our girl is carrying some precious cargo: A newborn baby named Earwig, who’s left on the doorstep of a British orphanage with a cassette tape that bears her name and a note from her mom that reads “Got the other 12 witches chasing me, I’ll be back when I’ve shook them off.” You’d be wise to ignore the tantalizing backstory this prologue seems to bake into the plot (the rest of the movie certainly does), and focus instead on the fact that Earwig’s mother is voiced by psych-country superstar and outspoken Ghibli fan Kacey Musgraves. Oh what a world, indeed!
Musgraves only has a few lines of dialogue, but “Earwig” makes use of her talents in a song that proves crucial to the plot, and this delightfully unexpected crossover event typifies a movie that’s willed to life by its voice cast even when everything else about it feels zombified on screen (this review is based off the English-language dub).
Alas, things settle into a stale groove once Earwig — renamed Erica Wig by her adoptive caretakers — starts her new life at the orphanage. Played by a precocious Taylor Paige Henderson, Earwig is unusually self-obsessed for the heroine of a kid’s movie, and Goro Miyazaki never shies away from the sense that his protagonist is just a few magic powers away from being the god-like twerp from that “Twilight Zone” episode who made everyone do his bidding. Only standing out from the other generic character models thanks to the two braids that stick up from the front of her head like antlers or devil horns, Earwig seems to amuse herself by making everyone around her as miserable as possible.
All of her quirks betray the sting of an unwanted child, but some are easier to excuse than others; it’s hard to blame Earwig for rolling her eyes at the way prospective parents always coo over the orphanage’s babies, less so to let her off the hook for fat-shaming the cook and lording over her only friend, a pasty boy named Custard who she almost never thinks about again once the story takes her into the outside world.
But the most important reason why Earwig doesn’t want to be adopted is that being part of a family would leave her with fewer people to boss around. Needless to say, she isn’t all that psyched when a long-nosed witch named Bella Yaga (Vanessa Marshall) and her lurch-like companion Mandrake (Richard E. Grant) show up one day, claim Earwig off the rack like they had a coupon for her, and take her back to their dank suburban home to work as an indentured servant. But Earwig, like so many Ghibli heroines before her, is undaunted by a challenge, and endeavors to make the best of it as she plots her escape. Depressing as it is to grind rat bones into powder all day — ingredients for the amusingly low-key spells Bella Yaga casts on local villagers for a small fee — Earwig is excited at the prospect of learning some magic of her own.
There’s also the mystery of the Mandrake, who would be the most fun part of this film even if not for Grant’s deliciously grow-forward voice performance as a dark presence who does not like to be disturbed (imagine a demonic Reynolds Woodcock whose glasses erupt into angry fireworks whenever someone makes the slightest noise or disparages his favorite snacks and you’ll have the right idea). As much as Goro Miyazaki is determined to wallow in the shapeless tedium of Earwig’s new routine — this is a movie that’s roughly 90 percent middle, with the vast majority of its action squeezed into the margins on either side — Mandrake can’t help but hold your interest whenever he shows up on screen.
The guy just wants to write his wannabe Dan Brown novels in peace, and we have to respect that even when his egocentric behavior just reflects Earwig’s brattiness in a more colorful light. It also helps that his fits of anger inspire the film’s most creative uses of character animation, as Mandrake’s body transforms with a molten rage that melts away the stiffness of his computer-generated design.
But not even Mandrake is entirely safe from the film’s deadening look, as the disconnect between the lifeforce of Grant’s performance and the flatness of its veneer is wide enough to create its own kind of uncanny valley. Every one of these characters falls into that trench to some degree; even the talking cat, who Dan Stevens voices with the shock of someone who can’t believe they haven’t been given more to do.
“Earwig” almost never leaves Mandrake’s house once it moves there, and it doesn’t take long for the movie to grow as bored and stir-crazy as its pre-teen namesake. Earwig spends most of her time snooping around the corridors and peering through photo-realistic cracks in the walls as if convinced that she’ll find some magic to this dull place if she just looks hard enough. It’s under there somewhere — a vital reminder of what all of the film’s characters have lost — but don’t expect this movie to convincingly explain why the remnants of a beautiful yesterday had to be hidden behind drywall to make way for such a drab tomorrow.
“Earwig and the Witch” is now streaming on HBOMax.