Earwig and the Witch continues Studio Ghibli’s well-deserved reputation for excellence for its vivid and creative animated features.
Dumped at a country orphanage as a baby, Earwig (the voice of Taylor Henderson) is the child of an English rocker with flaming red hair, who also happens to be a witch. That witch claims she’s being chased by 12 others and has to shake them off before she will return to reclaim her daughter. From the get-go Earwig – who the matron of the orphanage renames Erica Wigg –
knows how to get her own way. That starts with pulling the wool over the eyes of the matron (Pandora Colin) and extends to the other children. Earwig is also totally comfortable taking risks, unlike her best friend Custard (Logan Hannan), who doesn’t want to put a foot wrong. So content is Earwig at the orphanage that she wants to make sure she and Custard remain there.
To that end, she even teaches Custard how to avoid being selected when prospective adoptive parents pay a visit to choose a child to raise. One day, a large, stern-looking woman with unruly hair, Bella Yaga (Vanessa Marshall), and a devilishly scary looking man, turn up at the orphanage unannounced. Bella Yaga picks a scowling Earwig to raise and despite her protestations Earwig is forced to move onto the next chapter of her life. Bella Yaga is a witch and her all-powerful partner, with “horns”, who must never be crossed, is known as The Mandrake (Richard E. Grant).
In reality, The Mandrake has gotten Bella Yaga what she wanted, namely an extra pair of hands. In return, he never wants to be disturbed. Immediately Bella Yaga puts Earwig – who is trapped – to work, helping her create magic potions. Earwig complies at first, kidding herself that doing so will see Bella Yaga teach her what she knows about magic. Then, after Bella Jaga’s green-eyed black cat Thomas enters Earwig’s bedroom one night, Earwig’s world opens up. Central to that is a music cassette left to Earwig by her absent mum.
Earwig and the Witch has been written by Keiko Niwa and Emi Gunji from a novel by Diana Wynne Jones. I loved the fact that I had no idea how the storyline would play out, save for the fact that I expected a happy ending. There are surprises and twists aplenty. It’s not transparent about who’s good or bad or somewhere in between. Still, the theme of belonging is a universal one.
I appreciated the varied personality traits afforded to the key and secondary characters. Feisty Earwig is a great centrepiece around whom to build a story. I also immediately warmed to the colour and tone of the animation as well as to the few musical numbers. Directed by Goro Miyazaki, Earwig and the Witch is an animation that can be enjoyed and appreciated by children and adults alike. Its spell is alluring.
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Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.