Earwig and the Witch is Studio Ghibli’s first 3D animation

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Since 1985, famous Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli has been telling some of the most memorable, magical and inventive stories in cinema. Whatever the scale, their tales have heroism at heart – not necessarily of the capped variety, but the kind one finds in the daily acts of being alive. A battle between gods and monsters takes place with the same consideration as eating a fried egg or singing a John Denver song. Escape and realism go hand in hand, creating a veil of chatter between magical worlds and our own.

It’s this mix of epic adventure and ingrained detail that has made the studio’s films a balm for generations of viewers, whether discovered in theaters, on a questionable imported VHS, or now, on Netflix. But in 36 years, the studio has never stayed true to the same formula. As a stronghold of hand-drawn 2D animation, the studio has a perception of monastic craftsmanship; but he was always ready to experiment, tinker, and refine. And his new movie Earwig and the Witch, arriving in UK cinemas on Friday, could be its most sweeping offering yet.

In its early years, environmentalist parables Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (made in 1984 before the studio was founded, but with its key players) and Laputa: Castle in the sky (1986) scaled unique and palpable lands that rivaled Tolkien’s topography.

Hayao Miyazaki, director and co-founder of the studio, followed them with My neighbor Totoro (1988) and Kiki’s delivery service (1989), who starred a furry bear-like creature with a Cheshire cat smile and a witch who took Deliveroo to the skies on her broomstick.

Alongside Ghibli’s fantasy films, the studio’s other founding director, Isao Takahata, directed Grave of the Fireflies (1988), the multi-handkerchief heartbreaker of two children trying – and failing – to survive in the last days. of World War II. And came Only yesterday (1991), a drama that led documentary-type excursions into rural organic farming; and Pom poko (1994), a fable about industrialism featuring raccoon dogs with magical testicles. As the elevator throws progress, not all of them are instant winners, but the fiery ambition expressed by loyal studio producer Toshio Suzuki was clear; and within a few years, Ghibli had gone global.

Spirited Away became the first non-English language film to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature (Still: Studio Ghibli)

In 1997, which became the highest grossing film in Japanese history, the epic and bloody fantasy of Hayao Miyazaki Princess mononoke was the first to receive the Hollywood treatment. Among the star-studded English-speaking actors were Billy Crudup, Gillian Anderson and Billy Bob Thornton, who were working on a screenplay by famed author Neil Gaiman.

But despite his national success, the chairman of the American distributor Miramax, Harvey Weinstein, ogled at the time of 135 minutes. In a movement of power worthy of Succession, Suzuki presented Weinstein with a samurai sword with the simple and sharp message: “No cuts.” Not an out of place setting, Princess Mononoke has made her way to millions at the US box office.

A few years later, in 2001, the follow-up of the director Abducted as if by magic once again dominated the Japanese box office. Its story of a young girl finding work and independence in a mystical bath of beasts and spirits was a huge financial success and became the first non-English language film to win the Oscar for best feature film. animation.

The studio had reached its peak, but with its founding directors nearing retirement (which they never really did), they needed new blood. And not just any blood. Suzuki decided that a new film titled Tales of Earthsea, adapted from the novels of Ursula K Le Guin, would be directed by Goro Miyazaki, the son of Hayao. There was just one small problem: he was a landscape architect, not a filmmaker.

Goro Miyazaki (Photo: Studio Ghibli)

The story goes that Suzuki had learned the word “Miyazaki” and inspired the overall confidence of the Japanese public, so by quashing all qualms of nepotism, Goro was promoted to project manager for the newly opened Ghibli Museum, upon completion from a Ghibli movie. The result, released in 2006, was a financial success and a winner – albeit for Worst Film and Worst Director at the Japanese Razzie Awards – but despite its reputation as the black sheep of Ghibli, none of those titles are fully deserved. .

Tales of Earthsea Assembles a sprawling patchwork of awe-inspiring views and vibrant cityscapes, excitingly aligning Cornish abandoned coastlines with Babylonian urban sprawl, but sadly the film never fills its locations with a story worthy of their conception.

following Earthsea, Ghibli embraced more experimentation, with Goro often in the foreground. After realizing From above on Poppy Hill (2011), which was written by his father and warmly received, he was once again thrown into the professional deep end. His next project was Ronja, the thief’s daughter, a 2014 medieval children’s fantasy story made with computer-generated 3D models, then shaded for a flatter 2D look.

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It also had the honor – and the pressure – of being the studio’s first TV series. For a career initially marked by playing second violin to his father, Goro Miyazaki has landed a remarkable number of premieres: his latest project is Earwig and the Witch, Ghibli’s first outright 3D CGI movie.

Despite their reputation as pen-and-paper animators in the Old Testament, the studio has never been against computers. Hayao Miyazaki used them to argue together Princess mononoke, and again to help with the production of beloved works Abducted as if by magic and Howl’s moving castle (2004). Isao Takahata hugged them to help create his exciting creative My neighbors the Yamadas (1999) – a film full of line art, brushstrokes and formal momentum, meant to capture the feeling of an artist’s hand at work.

Earwig and the Witch is made in 3D, but still captures Studio Ghibli’s signature blend of whimsy and domesticity (Still: Studio Ghibli)

Takahata’s next and final film The tale of Princess Kaguya (2013) took this style further, with frames as lively as if they had been torn from a charcoal sketch. Even in some of his most expressionist works, Ghibli was not an animation fundamentalist.

In the context of Ear piercing, the Ghibli that the public knows can still be seen. The green hills and the blue sky of Kiki’s delivery service and Howl’s moving castle are there, but they remain on the horizon, far from the foreground and its population of strangely crafted characters. Earwig, a precocious young orphan, shares most of her screen time with Bella Yaga and The Mandrake, a mystical couple who adopt the bratty girl as their maid. Earwig does so, provided she is taught magic, something Bella Yaga cooks in a horribly maintained kitchen. With its combination of domesticity and whimsy, this is typical Ghibli fare; but the pleasantly familiar or inventive character design is hidden.

The tightrope between reality and fantasy that the studio previously danced so well on release; the caricatured expressions on realistic faces give rise to a strange vision; The hairstyles are eerily solid, like they’re pressed into a Play-Doh mold, and Earwig herself remains extremely unruly throughout.

But beneath the surface, beneath the grime of this kitchen, there is a message that stays true to so many Ghibli stories, that magic can be found in the simplest of places, and that the domestic realm can be as exciting as any imaginary.

“Earwig and the Witch” hits theaters Friday; Jake Cunningham is the co-author of ‘Ghibliotheque: An Unofficial Guide to the Movies of Studio Ghibli’, which will be released on September 2 (Welbeck, £ 20)



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