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Earwig and the Witch review – the worst Studio Ghibli movie ever

This hideously ugly and feebly written foray into full CG animation looks and feels more like a cheap Dreamworks knock-off

All the greats slip up sometimes and it isn't always easy to live up to the expectations you set for yourself. Yet, even with that in mind, it’s hard to think of a more shockingly reputation-staining release than Gorō Miyazaki's Earwig and the Witch, a film that offers nothing except a sullying of the good name of Studio Ghibli, replacing the studio's trademark beauty and magic with hideous animation and witless storytelling.

Ever since the first stills of Earwig and the Witch were released, the focus has rightly been on just how ugly it looks. This is Ghibli’s first foray into fully CG animation and, on this evidence, it should be their last. Plasticky faces stretch and contort in genuinely upsetting ways while characters’ hair looks like it was lifted directly out of a bad PS2 cutscene. This low-budget video game-esque animation extends to the lip-syncing – characters’ mouths match the English dub of the dialogue about half of the time, but otherwise just flap open and closed like a particularly dopey goldfish.

I was awestruck by the lack of aesthetic appeal on display in the first few scenes, and it’s not something you ever get used to. That this could have come out of the same studio that produced Spirited Away, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Castle in the Sky and so many more works of pure artistry is baffling.

Earwig and the Witch’s problems extend beyond just the visuals, though. Adapting the novel from Diana Wynne Jones (who also provided the source material for Howl’s Moving Castle), the plot here is both bland and confusing. Earwig (Taylor Henderson) is a young girl living a happy life at an orphanage where she is universally beloved, but she’s soon adopted by a sinister witchy pair known as Bella Yaga (Vanessa Marshall) and The Mandrake (Richard E. Grant).

From here, Earwig essentially just does chores for the couple while trying to learn from Bella Yaga’s spellbook. This is the dynamic for the majority of the slim, 80 minute runtime, until an overblown, “epic” ending that raises far more questions than it answers. It’s a plot that is boring until it’s disorienting, and it’s unlikely that any younger audience members are going to understand or enjoy it.

This nonsensical writing is matched by feeble voice acting. Most of the cast sound strained and uncomfortable, with the exception of Grant, who gives such a profoundly bored performance that you can almost hear him leaving the recording booth in the middle of his sentences.

There are some tiny hints of the Ghibli we know and love hidden here, with houses that resemble their residents and some amusingly petty uses of magic, but they mostly serve to remind you just how far Earwig and the Witch is from the studio’s proper, quality output. If another of this year's animated movies somehow winds up being worse, we’ll be very, very unlucky indeed.

Earwig and the Witch is released in UK cinemas on 28 May.

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