Kernel Rating: 1 out of 5
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 83 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 6+. An orphan is adopted by a mysterious couple who are revealed as witches who boss her around, use her for their chores, and refuse to teach her magic. Some cruelty from the guardians, in particular the female witch, who is insulting, belittling, and mean, and threatens the girl with magic worms. The male witch is also a little scary, and some of his details—sparking eyes, long ears, the ability to create magical fire—might unnerve young viewers. Magic spells including creepy ingredients are described, including rat bones and bat wings; “demons,” little flying characters who look like they are covered in eggshells, appear; a spell allows characters to force others to do whatever they want; a talking cat familiar is shown; and a falling-out, perhaps related to a pregnancy, is suggested between adults.
By Roxana Hadadi
Studio Ghibli has produced some of the most beautiful and compelling children’s movies of the last few decades—films that are memorable for their nuanced emotional themes and gorgeously detailed physical animation. It is shocking how “Earwig and the Witch,” the studio’s first foray into computer-generated animation, is a profound miscalculation on all fronts. Visually, the design stylish is garish and underdeveloped; narratively, this story is so thin that even the 83-minute runtime feels tortuously long. “Earwig and the Witch” might work for very young viewers looking for some distraction, but even that extremely limited recommendation feels generous.
Based on the book “Earwig and the Witch” by Diana Wynne Jones, “Earwig and the Witch” begins with a chase scene, but then never again reaches this level of very low excitement. A woman (Kacey Musgraves) with wildly curly red hair drops off a baby and a cassette with the word “Earwig” on it at an orphanage, and mentions the threat she faces from 12 witches. The next morning, when the orphanage staff find the little girl, the orphanage matron (Pandora Colin) renames her Erica Wigg, and years later, when Erica has grown up, she basically has the run of the place. The matron, the staff, and the other orphans basically all do what she want: they cook her favorite meals; her fellow wards at the orphanage let her read their mail; her friend Custard (Logan Hannan) always goes along with her schemes. It’s a pretty sweet deal, and Erica doesn’t want to leave.
But when she is adopted by a strange couple, Erica has no choice. She has to go live with the blue-haired, bossy, and cruel Bella Yaga (Vanessa Marshall) and the strangely tall, pointy-eared, vaguely ominous Mandrake (Richard E. Grant). From the very moment she steps inside their home, they don’t treat her like an adoptive daughter, but a maid. Bella Yaga forces her to clean her disgusting kitchen and do all kinds of chores. Mandrake mostly ignores her, but if she angers him, he’s not afraid to intimidate her. And when Erica learns that they’re both witches, and that Bella Yaga only sees her as another “pair of hands” to assist her in spell development and casting, while Mandrake intends her to be quiet, obedient, and cook for him, she decides she’s not going to take it. If Bella Yaga refuses to teach her magic, and if Mandrake is going to push her around, well—Erica will just show them.
Because we know from the first scene that Earwig is herself a witch, the film immediately loses some momentum. There isn’t really a question of whether the child who grows up to be Erica Wigg will develop powers, because she already has them by the time we meet her again—her influence at the orphanage is indicative of that. So there is already some tension lost in “Earwig and the Witch,” and the film continues to bore with a disappointing lack of character development for everyone here. Frankly, Bella Yaga and Mandrake are some of the most boring magical characters in recent children’s films, with very little motivations or understandable desires of their own. It’s all quite repetitive: Bella Yaga forces Erica to do some chores, Mandrake demands quiet, the former threatens Erica with magic worms, the latter scares her with fire. Over and over, with no deviation or no singularity—and really, no reason to keep watching.
It’s also disappointing how utterly blank of a character Erica is. She has all the characteristics normally found in these sort of children’s films: She’s a little spunky, she’s a little bossy. But Erica’s primary characteristic, that she’s interested in music, is shoehorned in so clunkily that the movie barely qualifies as a musical. When the film finally reveals that way that Bella Yaga, Mandrake, Erica, and that mysterious witch from the beginning of the movie are connected, it doesn’t do anything with that development. The film just rushes toward a conclusion that, frankly, makes Erica seem a bit like a jerk. “Earwig and the Witch” never finds the right tone, never really develops its characters, and never reaches the high standard of a Studio Ghibli production. It’s profoundly skippable.
“Earwig and the Witch” is currently streaming on HBO Max.