EARWIG AND THE WITCH

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Goro Miyazaki

Stars: voices of Taylor Henderson, Vanessa Marshall, Richard E Grant, Dan Stevens, Pandora Colin, Logan Hannan.

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This is the latest film from Japan’s famed animation Studio Ghibli, which has given us such fantasies as Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away. The studio is renowned for its colourful animation and wonderfully imaginative stories. Earwig And The Witch is the first fully 3D computer-generated animation from the studio, and it has been directed by Goro Miyazaki, the son of Studio Ghibli’s legendary filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki. Goro made his animation directorial debut with the underwhelming Tales From Earthsea.

The studio’s first new film in six years, Earwig And The Witch is a lively adaptation of the popular YA novel from the late Diana Wynne Jones (Howl’s Moving Castle, etc), a prolific writer who specialises in fantasy novels for children. In dealing with children, magic and witchcraft it has something of a Harry Potter feel.

The film actually begins with a frantic chase sequence which gives the material a sense of energy. But it soon peters out when the thin story line itself kicks in.

Earwig is a young girl raised in an orphanage after being abandoned by her mother, a fiery red headed singer with a popular rock band, who just happens to be a witch. She is being pursued by twelve other witches for some unexplained reason and has had to leave Earwig behind until she can deal with her pursuers. The mother also leaves a note and a music cassette with the young baby. Earwig is renamed Erica Wig by the matron. Erica is a spirited and precocious girl who is able to manipulate people, and she has everybody in the orphanage wrapped around her fingers. Her only friend in the orphanage is a lonely boy with the unusual name of Custard, who she protects.

But then she is adopted by Bella Yaga and the mysterious Mandrake, who mainly stays in his room trying to write his novel or hides behind his newspaper. Bella is actually a witch who casts spells for the locals for a small fee. She immediately puts Erica to work as her assistant in her workroom. Erica hopes to learn some magic herself but is mainly forced to do menial tasks and dirty chores.

Erica is defiant and feisty though. But she soon learns of a connection between the reclusive Mandrake and her own mother, and eventually manages to get the better of both Bella and the creepy and gangly looking Mandrake. Another major character here is Thomas the talking housecat, who has a strong personality of its own. Most of the film’s action is confined to the interior of Bella’s house, which gives it a claustrophobic feel.

However, the abrupt ending may leave many feeling unsatisfied. It feels as if the story is unfinished. Earwig And The Witch was one of the last novels written by Jones before her death in 2011, and I’m not sure if a sequel was intended. Maybe this is the pilot for a possible tv series following the further adventures of Earwig?

Earwig And The Witch is typical of most of the output from the studio; the look of the film is striking with the vibrant colours that bring the settings to life. The distinctive looking characters have been created by Katsuya Kondo. Music is also an important element of this world, and composer Satoshi Takebe has clearly channelled progressive 70s rock bands like Deep Purple and Foghat.

As is usual with the studio’s output there are two versions released to the cinema – one in the original Japanese language with English subtitles, and another dubbed in English and featuring a strong cast that includes Richard E Grant as Mandrake, Taylor Henderson as Earwig, Dan Stevens as Thomas, and Vanessa Marshall as the formidable Bella.

★★☆

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