Earwig and the Witch

Founded in 1985, Studio Ghibli is one of the most celebrated animation studios in the world, having produced such beloved films as “Princess Mononoke,” “Howl’s Moving Castle” and the Oscar-winning classic “Spirited Away,” all directed by co-founder Hayao Miyazaki.

My two-year-old daughter is a big fan of three of Miyazaki’s movies in particular: “Ponyo,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service” and “My Neighbor Totoro,” also all directed by Miyazaki. The other night she was running around with her play broom, pretending to be flying like Kiki, the young witch.

As a parent, I’m always looking for quality-made animated films and shows that I can watch with my daughter and I won’t be bored out of my mind. Studio Ghibli films can vary in quality when it comes to plot/story but the animation is always gorgeous to look at and the score, often composed by Joe Hisaishi, is consistently beautiful. Sometimes we even tell Alexa to play songs by him in order to relax us to sleep.

Now, the famed studio has its newest feature film available on HBO MAX, called “Earwig and the Witch.” It premiered on Japanese TV in late December and is just now available for North American audiences with an English dub. It’s directed by Goro Miyazaki, the son of the acclaimed co-founder, and it is the studio’s first attempt at a three-dimensional computer animated film as opposed to flat hand drawn animation.

The newest offering is a complete swing and miss for older viewers. Some younger kids might like it but even my daughter started asking me to put on a different cartoon.

Simply put, it’s not up to the standards established by Studio Ghibli.

It’s the story of a young girl witch, left on the door step of an orphanage as a newborn, only to later be adopted by a strange magical couple. Oh, and there’s a talking black cat too. Sounds awfully like “Kiki’s Delivery Service.”

It’s based on a novel by Diana Wynn Jones, who also wrote the book for “Howl’s Moving Castle,” and it seems like Goro is trying hard to copy his father’s previous efforts but seems to miss the magic and charm of his dad’s movies.

The biggest sin of “Earwig and the Witch” is that it’s ugly to look at. The cheap-looking computer animation looks more like “Cocomelon” than anything done by Pixar (or even Dreamworks for that matter…).

Some people have argued that “Earwig and the Witch” makes a case that hand-drawn animation is superior than working solely with computers but I disagree. Films like “Soul” and “Kubo and the Two Strings” prove otherwise.

The expressionless faces in “Earwig and the Witch” actually look a lot like the generic avatars you created when the Nintendo Wii was launched in 2006.

I understand that the budget might have been smaller because it’s a TV movie, but the animation seems to lack creativity.

Studio Ghibli recently created candy for the eye with the interesting rough sketches in “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” in 2013 or the simplistic figures in “The Red Turtle” in 2016, both nominated for Oscars. To release this newest effort under the studio’s name feels more like a favor to the founder’s son rather than a production to be proud of.

I hate to sound like a snob when it comes to the look of animation, but it does matter. Animation can be an art form. My wife laughs when I complain about the cheap animation in the PBS cartoon “Dinosaur Train.”

But it’s important to have something interesting to look at. My daughter and I love watching “Hilda” or “Puffin Rock” on Netflix, the latter of which was created by the same people who directed the amazing-looking animated films “The Song of the Sea” and “Wolfwalkers.”

Maybe Goro just isn’t as good as his father. His previous two films, “Tales from Earthsea” in 2006 and “From Up on Poppy Hill” in 2011 are often panned by Studio Ghibli fan who sometimes bring up his strained relationship with his father.

For loves of Studio Ghibli there is good news on the horizon though: Hayao Miyazaki announced in 2017 that he was coming out of retirement to direct the film “How Do You Live,” which is currently under production and is expected to come out in 2021 or 2022 (no date yet).

I guess we’ll just have to wait for daddy to restore the glory.

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