Studio Ghibli Ventures Into New Territory With Its First 3D Animated Movie

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After its initial press release, Earwig and the Witch (2020) has generated a ton of interest, both good and bad, among movie-lovers. Why it has sparked the interest of many boils down to one thing — it’s the first 3D animated movie Studio Ghibli has ever produced.

Set to be released in the US on February 3 this year, Earwig and the Witch, a movie based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, is a magical tale about an orphan and her adoptive guardian, who happens to be a witch. The movie’s first release was on the 30th of December in 2020, airing on NHK General TV. 

Watch the trailer of the first 3D animated movie by Studio Ghibli Earwig and the Witch (2020).

Earwig and the Witch sounds like a classic Ghibli movie with all the whimsical plot and extraordinary characters you’d expect. The only difference is it veers away from the studio’s trademark 2D aesthetic, and not every fan is happy.

But before we get into the movie’s general reception, let’s first take a look at how some of Studio Ghibli’s 2D animated movies compare to its new 3D release.

Movie still from The Wind Rises (2013)

Why People Love Studio Ghibli’s 2D Animated Movies

In 2002, Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away (2001) won Best Feature Film at the Berlin International Film Festival and bagged the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film. According to Studio Ghibli’s official website, four of the studio’s films were also nominees for the same Academy Award title consecutively.

People undeniably cherish the hand-drawn films Studio Ghibli has produced for nearly two decades. They do for many reasons. And one of these reasons is the pleasant and inviting atmosphere of every scene and every activity in the Ghibli universe. 

In the world of a Ghibli film, everything is romanticized. Daily commute becomes a pocket of time for reflection, and routine chores become a choreographic masterpiece. A Studio Ghibli film makes the mundane look delicious and satisfying, and it manages to do this through vibrant colors and 2D animation.

The truth is Studio Ghibli’s 2D animation is a huge reason why its fans are so drawn to the Japanese studio’s cinematic creations. Through 2D art and movement, Studio Ghibli perfectly executes certain emotions people relate to. And it’s sometimes through exaggeration — in 2D — that people find comfort in a Ghibli character. Consider how one gobbles food, like Chihiro in Spirited Away, or how Sophie cries in Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). A comment on a YouTube video perfectly sums this up:

“[I] love the [Ghibli] water physics. [It] doesn’t look like how water looks, it looks like how water feels.”

— YouTube User Hansa

It’s clear to see why the new 3D film Earwig and the Witch has drawn more flak than excitement from Ghibli’s long-time fans — even before its release.

Comparing the 2D Animated Movies of Studio Ghibli with Its First 3D Animated Movie

Analyzing Studio Ghibli’s older collection with its new release can help us understand where the criticism is coming from. What about it, aside from the fact it’s 3D, veers away from the Ghibli trademark of romanticism and sentimentality?

An article in an independent online magazine The Artifice notes how “Ghibli’s art style, simplicity, pacing, and rawness of the characters allow the animations [to] touch its audiences in a unique way.” The article highlights that specific characteristic — simplicity. And while that is applicable, simplicity is not all there is to its older films. 

Simplicity is only one layer drawing an entire audience to a Ghibli film. Because the other crucial stand-out layer is its intricate details, something that moves a viewer along with the animation’s simplicity. Perhaps, this is one of the significant differences between Earwig and the Witch and Studio Ghibli’s earlier work.

When we watched the trailer, we noticed something almost undeniable about the new Studio Ghibli 3D animated movie. These complex details strike differently. Earwig and the Witch, directed by Gorō Miyazaki, is a bold move. Bigger studios, such as Pixar, have been in the business of producing 3D films for years, according to Game Rant. This means they are more familiar with how details, including lighting and shading, should appear in a 3D-rendered world. In the case of Studio Ghibli, there might be a learning curve that needs overcoming.

That said, Studio Ghibli’s 3D debut should be appraised on its own merits and not on the merits of its antecedents.

Movie still from Spirited Away (2001)

What People Have Said About the First 3D Animated Movie by Studio Ghibli

Because the movie hasn’t been globally released, we can only glean from the reviews by people who have actually seen Earwig and the Witch. One such review is by Noah Oskow, an author and contributor for Unseen Japan. 

In a YouTube video, he says the setting, particularly the main character’s new home, looks “properly lived-in”. Various objects and details occupy its space, and buildings do look dilapidated when they need to be.

The Ghibli aesthetic is very much present in Earwig and the Witch, but a few things were a bit lost in translation. For example, the main character’s face tends to look “overly plasticky,” Oskow observes. And a few have noticed how shadows and lighting appear to be absent from her face as well. However, a bit of tweaking will surely help the studio eventually perfect its craft in the world of 3D animation.

Despite the reviews and rants about Earwig and the Witch, it’s safe to say the only time we can make our own judgment about the film is after its US release in February this year.

In Summary

Earwig and the Witch drew flak mostly because Studio Ghibli tried a new style for its stories, which involves computer-generated characters and 3D animation

While some of the criticisms are valid, it’s important to remember not many people have seen the film yet. However, the movie will soon be available in the US this February.

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Justine Jordan

Justine Jordan is a content and copy writer. She has written for a popular business daily in the Philippines and for various startups across the globe before transitioning to work for NarraSoft. She graduated cum laude from the University of the Philippines-Diliman with a bachelor's degree in journalism.