2D Reigns Supreme In The Ghibli World

2D Reigns Supreme In The Ghibli World

It’s hard to find someone who has watched at least one Studio Ghibli film and can say anything bad about the studio. Their projects are typically acclaimed and adored by audiences, telling timeless stories that result in films like My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and Spirited Away (2001) which leave long-lasting legacies in cinema history. While older projects still tend to be more highly regarded than newer ones, Ghibli’s popularity has not waned.

Despite having stuck to a hand-drawn, 2D animation style since its emergence in 1985, Studio Ghibli’s films haven’t ever felt dated. While prominent Hollywood animation counterparts (namely Disney and Pixar) raced to adopt and perfect a 3D style, Studio Ghibli found their niche in the rare old-school style that fans have come to know and love them for. 

And that is precisely why the recent trailer drop for Studio Ghibli’s newest project Earwig and the Witch sent shockwaves throughout the internet (watch the trailer below if you want to have a look for yourself – the English dub version seems to be the one widely available).

Earwig and the Witch is special, being the studio’s first fully 3D CGI animation film. Perhaps they thought that straying away from their hallmark style would be seen as ‘innovative’ and a signal that the studio was ‘modernising’. 

Audiences did not agree. In fact it could be seen as a betrayal, that the very thing audiences and fans loved about Ghibli had changed, and seemingly not for the better. 

The trailer was practically dragged through the mud by the internet, even though the film was not out yet. Google the film, and you’ll find less-than-positive reviews on the first few pages of results. Given the reception so far, this is probably going to be their last attempt at the style, unfortunately (or fortunately, depending what side of the argument you fall under).

Briefly, the film is about an orphan named Earwig, who is adopted and taken under the wing by a witch called Bella Yaga, and it is in her new home and family she enters a world of magic and whimsy. This fantastical element is reminiscent of its predecessors at the studio, but really, that’s where the similarities stop.

The most notable part of this project was that it was helmed by a Miyazaki – no, not Hayao Miyazaki, the man whose name is synonymous with the studio he co-founded – but his son Gorō, who directed this feature and is at least partially responsible for the different creative direction. 

Echoing a previously mentioned sentiment, the younger Miyazaki described to ‘The Wrap’ in an interview that this project was their attempt “to try something new”, since the studio had been dabbling in “hand-drawn animation for a long time”. It’s worth mentioning though that this is not his first project with the studio, so he has had some prior experience. Admittedly, it must be tough with expectations pinned on your back to live up to your father’s shiny reputation. As he puts it, getting to take the studio down a new path was “mentally more relaxing for [him]”.

Watching the trailer, I felt that it was perhaps because we have been so accustomed to the uber-realistic 3D style of Hollywood animation, that this simplistic 3D Ghibli venture resembled animation from the early 2000s. If you’re familiar, I thought of it as a refined version of the animation style of Barbie movies back in the day. I also noticed a sort of inconsistency – there was an unfinished look to the human figures while other parts, such as the detail of the electric guitar near the end of the trailer, were extremely well done.

The 3D style does maintain the realism that the 2D style had – and sometimes this new realism achieved is an applaudable effort – but this time it is off-putting. The fluidity of their 2D animation is lost and is instead replaced by stiff figures that are almost a thing of nightmares. The characters are rather lifeless and robotic. I can see that there was an attempt to combine the original 2D drawing style with 3D CGI animation, but it’s safe to say that was not the best idea.

When dealing with magical elements of Ghibli stories, the nuance and softness that 2D animation exuded left you in awe and amusement; there was something so comforting about previous Ghibli films that were done in the style. From what I’ve seen, I cannot say the same about the 3D style.

This was also what made Ghibli films so outstanding even to this day. Their animations may have been two-dimensional, but they managed to emote at the same level as more three-dimensional Pixar tearjerkers. They helped demonstrate that 2D animation did not equal less detail and was not in any way inferior to 3D – they were able to achieve the same things.

With all this said, it is not to say that in the genre overall, any one animation style, 2D or 3D, is ‘better’ than the other, but rather that the presence of both within the industry has helped provide such variety. Throw stop-motion animation into the mix, and this is only amplified.

Having cemented its role as the leader of 2D animation in a majorly 3D genre nowadays, Studio Ghibli should continue with their specialty. People clearly appreciate the hand-drawn nature of Ghibli films; effort by animators is often overlooked/discarded but one could say that in this case it has inspired some to venture into anime style drawing, or to simply explore the genre’s existing works.

Gorō Miyazaki and his team’s efforts are admirable nonetheless. I can understand his hopes to advance the studio by attempting an unexplored territory. Risky as it was, it might have been a step that needed to be taken in order for the studio to really reflect on their place in the modern day animation landscape.

It shows that even within an admired studio like Studio Ghibli, where products overall seem to be faultless, there will be slip-ups. Disney and Pixar have had their fair share of flops, critically and/or financially, and are still enjoying continued success. Ghibli is likely just experiencing this too.

With Hayao Miyazaki returning for the studio’s 2023 project How Do You Live?, audiences need not fear about the studio’s future just yet. Earwig and the Witch was simply a deviation from the norm for them.

Words by Pui Kuan Cheah.

Illustration by Gregory Segal.

Looking for more reviews and commentary? Check out Mouthing Off’s Film & Television Section.

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