Studio Ghibli is back! Kinda!
I’m not gonna lie. The post-Wind Rises artistic arc for Japan’s greatest animation studio has been bizarre. The Tale of Princess Kaguya was a heart wrenching film and original animated film but it’s immediate Followup When Marnie Was There felt somewhat overwrought and cliche.
Their “last” film The Red Turtle (2016) was a completely different film that Ghibli merely produced out of a French animation studio. It seemed like the studio’s direction, going forward, was to transition into a distributor of international films.
In that sense, the “death” of Studio Ghibli never really happened in that sense. The late North American releases of films like Only Yesterday and Ocean Waves filled a lot of the void of no longer having NEW films coming out for several years.
Ghibli’s creatives certainly didn’t take their studio closure sitting down. Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017) was made by some former Ghibli staff at Studio Ponac which tried to imitate the Ghibli house style. Sadly the film has been largely forgotten…
Now the studio is releasing at least two more films before presumably shutting down AGAIN. One of them will be Hayeo Miyazaki’s “LAST” film (something he has said at least three times now). The first is a 3D animated feature by Goro Miyazaki. Goro is most well known as Hideo Miyazaki’s son and the director of two animated features: Tales from Earthsea and From Up on Poppy Hill.
Neither film is terribly well regarded in the pantheon on Ghibli films..
To say that Studio Ghibli is “back” feels wrong because the studio never truly “died” but the spirit of the studio was lost with the retirement of Miyazaki and the death of Isao Takahata. It’s hard to say that any of their films have kept up the spirit of the company since the release of their last masterpiece The Wind Rises.
Imitating the style hasn’t filled the void of spectacular writing that made films like Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and My Neighbor Totoro feel timeless and precious.
Case in point, the first of their two new films also comes to us from a creative team led by Goro Miyazaki. Earwig and The Witch definitely feels like an imitation. By itself, it’s story would be considered a second rate story in the pantheon of their films. Naturally, the film is executed in such a manner that this is complicated…
Earwig and the Witch is the first fully 3D animated feature film to come out of Studio Ghibli. It shows…
The story isn’t dissimilar from some of the other films in the pantheon. A strong willed young girl, the daughter of a witch, lives in an orphanage and has grown very comfortable in her lifestyle. When she finds herself adopted by two grumpy old people against her will, she discovers that they’re secretly a witch and a “mandrake” who commune with demons to perform spells.
There’s a cleverness on display in the writing in so far as the story is lampooning fairy stories of this sort. The evil godmother trope is presented here as a someone self centered, bumbling and banal older woman with an even more grumpy live-in husband.
The film isn’t so much plot driven as it is situation driven. Our young protagonist almost immediately conforms to her situation and starts trying to press her circumstances for her own benefit. At times, the story seems to be building up into a story with a larger mystery about the origins of these three characters and their hidden connections to one another. Our lead’s misbehavior serves to create most of the film’s best visuals and scenerios but also drives her eventually coming to connect to her new family.
Sadly, it doesn’t build to much. The epic reveals of the story come to not and the final reveal of the film ends the story on a cliffhanger I don’t expect to be resolved. The greater sense that this young woman’s story is going to prove more significant doesn’t come to fruition.
An average story like this might’ve been more acceptable in the old days of Studio Ghibli but the new art style really undermines the film’s execution. Sadly, the film looses the fluidity and expressionism of 2D animation.
At a glance, the film tries to borrow the house style of their older films but the character models don’t really work. They’re beautiful at a distance and many of the more distinctive characters look good within this style. That isn’t the case for the majority of characters though. Many of the small details do work but it’s not enough to keep the new style from being distractingly ugly. It looks better the more the imagery leans into the surreal.
Sadly, that expressionism doesn’t match the otherwise banal setting for the story. Seeing weird character designs in otherwise realistic environments makes the unreal nature of their designs more unsettling.
I get the sense that this film is something of an experiment. Ghibli has floated the idea of transitioning their art style for years and I don’t think they’ve worked out all the kinks yet. Maybe bringing back the 2D animators for two more films wasn’t an option. Maybe this was a price cutting measure to get two more films off the ground. In either case, I’m curious to see what Miyazaki will do with his “final” film. I wouldn’t say I’m optimistic though.