Before you watch the new film from Studio Ghibli Catchy tune and the witchIt’s worth setting expectations. Longtime Ghibli fans hoping for a theatrical masterpiece in the order of magnitude Spiritually gone prepare for disappointment, even if one of Isao Takahata’s risky Ghibli-style experiments is expected to raise the bar too high.
Catchy tune and the witch is the first CG feature created under the Ghibli banner and is clearly aimed at young children rather than audiences of all ages. Director Goro Miyazaki made a conscious decision to go with the small and simple story to make the project manageable for the largely freelance team that produced it, while Ghibli’s traditional animators worked on studio co-founder Hayao Miyazaki’s next project. Knowledge Catchy tune A careful trial run for new technology won’t make this 82-minute film seem like a Ghibli classic, but it should allay some of fans’ fears that this little piece of work is the culmination of the studio’s future ambitions, and prepare them for the limitations of the project.
The problems with Catchy tune and the witch go beyond animation, which lacks the visual depth and sophistication of recent Japanese CG features like Lupine III: The First. Like Ghibli’s traditionally animated feature from 2004 Howl’s Moving Castle, Catchy tune based on a novel by British writer Diana Wynne Jones. But where Howl is one of her best and most vibrant novels (which says a lot given her deep bookcase of great fantasy work), Catchy tune
The brave protagonist, Earwig, is a witch’s daughter who was abandoned in infancy in an orphanage by a tormented mother who was persecuted by 12 other witches for reasons neither explained in either version. As a young girl, Earwig learned to manipulate adults and children alike, and she maintains her rule over her orphanage through subservience and favors. Then a witch named Bella Yaga and her creepy companion The Mandrake appear at the orphanage and adopt Earwig as a witch assistant, grind rat bones and cut snake skins for Bella Yaga’s spell. Bella Yaga regards her as a slave who must be threatened to submit. Earwig sees Bella Yaga as a chance to learn magic and gain even more strength.
One of the biggest problems with the film from the start is that Earwig isn’t a particularly appealing protagonist. It is one thing when an omniscient narrator in the book proclaims with a little judgment that she likes the orphanage because so many people do exactly what she wants. It’s quite another to openly brag to her best friend Custard in the movie for “controlling” everyone in the orphanage, or to see her later proclaim that control of Bella Yaga and The Mandrake is a natural next target is. Ghibli movies are full of Genki girl who roll up their sleeves and do hard work that brings good results out of bad situations but are usually not so forgiving and complacent.
Earwig’s methods of control – big-eyed insincerity, lavish compliments on her goals, and ridicule behind her back – don’t make her any more attractive. Ghibli protagonists are usually distinguished by their sincerity: even the rare villains are uncomplicated in their desires and fully immersed in their beliefs. Earwig’s open, two-faced demeanor would make her more of a little villain than a heroine in most children’s stories.
Fortunately, she is faced with excessive evils that offset her selfishness. Where Jones’ books usually have a distinctive voice that doesn’t quite match that of any other author, Catchy tune and the witch reads very much like a Roald Dahl story in the style of Matilda or James and the giant peachwith weird, horrible adults whose misconduct justifies excessive child revenge. Bella Yaga’s frequent threats of infecting Earwig with purple-green worms if she doesn’t behave are quite intimidating, as are the frequent stormy tantrums from The Mandrake, a creature that changes size and shape when annoyed and itself very annoying.
Catchy tune and the witch doesn’t look much like a Ghibli movie, and not just because of the comparatively stiff, simple, three-dimensionally structured CG animation. Among the few elements known, however, is Bella Yaga’s wild, over-mature design, reminiscent of the similarly extreme visual caricatures of HowlWitch and Witch Spiritually goneis intimidating witch Yubaba. Bella Yaga’s confidante, a talking black cat named Thomas, is similarly reminiscent of Jiji in kiki’s delivery service. The biggest connection, however, is the way that strong emotions can change everything about people, including their shapes. The mandrake, with her long, grumpy face and variable shape, is the most creative and colorful part of the film and most pleasurable for the intended child audience. An early moment when he stares at Earwig at the orphanage, then gradually darkens and swells up until his head brushes the ceiling, is a deliciously terrifying moment from a fairytale nightmare.
Catchy tune could use authentically creepier moments like these and more deviations from Jones’ very simple outlines that put Earwig against Bella Yaga in a battle of wills that is almost over at the beginning. Purists might complain how far Howl’s Moving Castle departs from Jones’ grandiose story to get to grips with Hayao Miyazaki’s longstanding personal obsessions such as escape, the destructive and terrifying nature of war, and the way courage conquers evil and love saves lives. But at least the film has a point of view and the benefit of the highly specific and recognizable voice of its creator.
Catchy tuneoften feels generic, however. The departures from Jones’ book, which provide a better insight into Earwig’s mother and Bella Yaga’s past, are by far the most exciting and evocative parts of history. They just don’t go far enough. Instead, they raise enough questions to make this film feel like a pilot for a series that would embark on a much more specific journey of discovery. What’s up with these 12 other witches chasing Earwig’s mother? Given how much this movie feels like a test case, maybe Goro and Ghibli should use the time and effort that goes into design and execution here and build on the Earwigverse. It is wise to keep expectations of this project pretty low, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from hoping for bigger and better things in Ghibli’s future.
Catchy tune and the witch opens in limited theatrical release on February 3rd and streamed on HBO MAX starting February 5th. It will be available for digital rentals, DVD and Blu-ray from April 6th. For more information about security measures in the cinema, see Polygon’s Guide to Theatrical Viewing during the COVID-19 pandemic.