The greatest Anime studio (fight me) releases a rare miss.
A witch (Sherina Munaf/Kacey Musgraves) leaves her infant daughter Aya/Earwig (Kokoro Hirasawa/Taylor Paige Henderson) at an orphanage as she’s being chased by the other members of her coven, promising to return. Ten years later, Earwig, now called Erica, is a mischievous but not malicious child who wants to stay with her friends at the orphanage. However, she is adopted by a strange woman named Bella Yaga (Shinobu Terajima/Vanessa Marshall) and an inhuman man named Mandrake (Etsushi Toyokawa/Richard E. Grant). Bella Yaga reveals that she is a witch and that she has adopted Earwig to be her servant. Rather than be upset, Earwig is excited at the possibility of learning magic, only to be disappointed that Bella Yaga doesn’t want to teach her. She and Bella Yaga’s familiar Thomas (Gaku Hamada/Dan Stevens) work together to try and improve their lot under Bella Yaga.
I want to start off by saying that I might have put too much pressure on this film because it’s Studio Ghibli. I mean, they’re the studio that made Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, Grave of the Fireflies, and Spirited Away. Aside from Akira and Dragon Ball Z, this studio is probably the single biggest penetration of Anime into mainstream Western culture. Much like Pixar, I expect the baseline of their films to be “above average.” Unfortunately, by that standard, this is not a good movie.
The biggest problem with the film is that it has so many interesting premises and elements that could be explored, but it perpetually chooses not to do anything with them. Instead, the film just kind of jumps from weird moment to weird moment, often with little to nothing indicating why. The whole film’s motivation appears to be Earwig wanting to get Bella and Mandrake to do what she wants, but even when she works towards that, it usually is indirect. Character motivations are surprisingly thin, particularly since there are really only four characters in the film. I admit that I usually expect a Studio Ghibli film to do a lot of its development through animation and setting, but this film skipped even that and I think part of it is that they just weren’t as experienced in doing subtlety through CGI. I’ll admit that while I think parts of the CGI in this film look great, other parts feel somewhat unfinished or stylized poorly, which means that a lot of the film suffers.
The soundtrack is pretty good, since a part of the bigger arc to the film involves Earwig finding a band called Earwig and enjoying their songs, but it does get a bit repetitive. Even worse, like much of the other stuff in the film, the presence of the band only brings up a bunch of questions that would likely have really interesting answers, but then fails to deliver on any of them. Instead, the film just kind of jumps ahead and wraps everything up in a monologue and a rushed conclusion. Given that the movie (without credits) is only like 70 minutes, I don’t quite understand why the finale had to be so quick. It’s like this movie was just the first half of a film and that the second half got cut for time.
Overall, this is just not a great film and I am so sad to say that.
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