Perhaps the most infamous clip of Hayao Miyazaki—the Studio Ghibli co-founder whose name remains synonymous with the studio’s work—is of his reaction to a CGI animation demo: “I would never wish to incorporate this technology into my work at all,” the animation master says. “I strongly feel that this is an insult to life itself.” The context alters his meaning a little—the animators have presented a model of a zombie whose movements they describe as grotesque, to which Miyazaki takes offense given his friendship with someone whose physical disability is so severe that he finds even giving a high-five to be difficult—but Miyazaki’s strong words (he reduces the animators to tears) and his declaration, later, that the animators’ desire to build a machine capable of creating art feels like a sign of the end times make a total pivot to computer animation for Studio Ghibli seem unthinkable. Which is why the existence of the studio’s latest film, the completely computer-animated Earwig and the Witch, is so bizarre.
Based on the novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones and directed by Hayao Miyazaki’s son Gorō, Earwig feels curiously empty. The character designs are wonderfully distinct and colorful, but the world around them—and the way that they move through it—comes across as flat despite being animated in 3D. In a press conference for the film, Gorō joked that he made the anime with a young staff and “didn’t consult with any of the old guys at all,” saying that the elder Miyazaki had given him the green light and had then been hands off. (Hayao Miyazaki is credited as a planner on the film.) Unfortunately for Gorō, who already has impossible shoes to fill, the lack of his father’s touch is evident.
The movie’s setup is simple and plenty reminiscent of Ghibli classics. As a baby, Earwig (Kokoro Hirasawa) was left on the doorstep of an orphanage, and in the decade that has passed since, she’s come to like it so much that when she’s finally adopted by a rather strange couple, she begs the orphanage matron not to let her go. However, when she discovers that her new mother, Bella Yaga (Shinobu Terajima), is a witch, her attitude changes, and she eagerly volunteers to become Bella Yaga’s apprentice. Bella Yaga, however, has other plans. Earwig is tasked with completing menial tasks around the house rather than learning any magic and warned away from disturbing the house’s other occupant, the mysterious Mandrake (Etsushi Toyokawa), a man with ears so long that, as Earwig notes, they resemble horns.
The script, written by Keiko Niwa and Emi Gunji, has only one question in mind: Will Earwig and Bella Yaga ever learn to get along? There are tantalizing breadcrumbs scattered here and there that hint at the larger world in which Earwig and the Witch takes place, but the scope of the film itself is frustratingly small, to the point that it feels like a TV pilot rather than a film. (To that end, it’s also the first and only Ghibli film to end on a note that feels like a cliffhanger, or at least leaves the door open for a sequel.) That sense of diminished scale is exacerbated by the visuals, which come across as sparse, as if there simply wasn’t enough time to render all of the objects that would normally populate the vivid worlds that Studio Ghibli films are known for. In a street scene, for instance, all of the cars that go by are the same boxy model, just painted different colors.
Gorō is a talented director. The individual shots of Earwig are beautifully composed, the characters are delightful (the tiny demons who wait upon Mandrake seem destined to become merchandise hits), and the film’s flimsy plot isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But the visuals sink the entire enterprise. Studio Ghibli has used computer animation in its films before—e.g., the Stink Spirit’s transformation in Spirited Away—but it has only been in moments, and in service of otherwise 2D films, rather than in such a wholesale fashion. The uncannily smooth nature of Earwig—characters’ skin and hair appear waxy at best—only emphasizes the point that CG animation is a new frontier for the studio, and the extent that it pales in comparison to the cutting-edge work done by Pixar. Earwig may be much smaller—it’s technically a TV movie—but that knowledge doesn’t make the experience of watching it any less jarring.
It’s curious to watch, in comparison, Hayao Miyazaki’s single venture in animating solely in CG, the short film Boro the Caterpillar. The short is only available to watch in its entirety at the Ghibli Museum, but the few glimpses of it that are available make it clear that the computer graphics are being used to replicate 2D animation rather than Earwig-esque 3D. Though Studio Ghibli’s one TV series, the Gorō-helmed Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter, attempts an approach that’s halfway between both worlds through cel shading, a single look makes it clear that it suffers the same problems that Earwig does in terms of its characters appearing somewhat weightless and disconnected from the world. At any rate, pushing the studio further into 3D territory doesn’t truly seem to be in the cards so long as the 80-year-old Hayao is around, as his current project, the forthcoming movie How Do You Live?, is being hand-drawn.
There are a few moments in Earwig that manage to transcend the awkward animation, but nothing that really makes the case for the movie being in 3D. Pixar, and studios like Laika and Cartoon Saloon, which resolutely work in stop-motion and hand-drawn animation respectively, have developed distinct styles that are inseparable from their mediums. Earwig’s designs don’t separate it from the rest of the Ghibli pack, which is both a blessing and a curse: The recognizable Ghibli style will attract viewers but also makes Earwig feel like a dull copy. The brief, bright pop of hand-drawn animation (or at least the approximation of it) in the film’s opening credits only makes it clearer that, at this stage, using 3D CG animation isn’t opening a door for Studio Ghibli. It’s closing one.