Eighty-year-old animation legend Hayao Miyazaki once described computer-generated imagery as “thin, shallow, fake”. Now Studio Ghibli has made its first ever fully CG feature, and it’s, well, erm … The politest thing to say about Earwig and the Witch is that it’s not a patch on Ghibli’s hand-drawn output, with plasticky-looking characters and an aimless plot. More painfully still, the film-maker responsible is Miyazaki’s son, Gorō Miyazaki (who previously directed the pretty decent Tales from Earthsea and From Up on Poppy Hill).
To be fair, Earwig was made for Japanese TV, but there are so many echoes here of Ghibli films past that it’s impossible not to compare and despair. Like Howl’s Moving Castle, the script is based on a classic children’s book by Diana Wynne Jones; and just like Kiki’s Delivery Service the heroine is a plucky young witch. It begins on the doorsteps of an English orphanage where baby Earwig is left by her rock star mum along with a note: “Got the other 12 witches all chasing me. I’ll be back for her when I’ve shook them off. It may take years.”
The baby is renamed Erica Wig and grows up to be cheerfully brattish, wrapping everyone at the orphanage around her little finger. Unlike the other kids, Erica (voiced by Taylor Henderson) has no intention of being adopted. But one day a gruesome twosome shows up: buxomy blue-haired witch Bella Yaga (Vanessa Marshall) and her bad-tempered fella Mandrake (Richard E Grant). The witch needs a helper with her spells – and puts Erica to work grinding rat bones and picking prickly nettles.
There are some nice touches here and there, like the whirling little demons with batwings who are devoted to Mandrake. But the script ignores all the interesting bits of the story – who are the witches chasing Earwig’s mum and how does she shake them off? How does Earwig feel about being abandoned? Since the last Studio Ghibli release five years ago I’ve become a parent. I used to roll my eyes when friends said how much their young kids loved Ghibli films – sceptical that the slow bits and big complicated feelings would keep little ones entertained. Then I saw it first-hand – the dreamy faraway look on my four-year-old’s face watching When Marnie Was There. So this new film is genuinely disappointing.
And there’s a while to wait yet for the latest from Miyazaki Sr. Sixty animators are currently working – by hand, naturally – at a rate of one-minute of animation a month on his new film. Speaking last year, a producer said they have 36 minutes in the bag with three years to go.
• Earwig and the Witch is released on 28 May in cinemas.