Studio Ghibli and Pixar have often been compared to one another over the years. Both studios have a reputation for consistently producing animated classics with a ton of heart, despite a few hiccups along the way (Tales from Earthsea, Cars 2). Whereas Ghibli has stuck with mostly traditional animation, whereas Pixar has innovated 3D computer animation. Earwig and the Witch is Ghibli's first CG anime, and legendary director Hayao Miyazaki has allegedly compared the film to Pixar's standard of quality.
In a recent interview for Polygon, Earwig director Goro Miyazaki mentioned that his father declared Earwig and the Witch to be of Pixar quality. According to Goro, his father "has seen [the finished film] and said it was very interesting. He said that, finally, we were able to make something that is as good as Pixar. I think he felt a little bit of competitiveness or rivalry toward Pixar." While it's certainly nice that Hayao is being more complimentary of his son, he's wrong about this: Earwig and the Witch's animation quality isn't quite up to Pixar's level.
What is Pixar Quality?
What does Hayao Miyazaki mean by his Pixar comparison? He might be referring to one of two things: the quality of animation or the quality of storytelling. As far as the latter, Ghibli has long been on a similar (if not higher) level of consistency to Pixar. Both Pixar and Ghibli have released 23 animated features (if we count the pre-Ghibli Nausicaa but not the co-production The Red Turtle). Of that number, only two of Ghibli's films -- Tales from Earthsea and Earwig and the Witch -- have scored below 78% on Rotten Tomatoes, while four of Pixar's films have -- the three Cars films and The Good Dinosaur -- have fallen below the same metric. Both studios are on roughly the same metric when comparing their greatest features.
Given that Earwig and the Witch is Studio Ghibli's first fully-CGI feature and Pixar is a major innovator in CGI, it's more likely that Hayao Miyazaki is comparing Earwig to the quality of animation seen in Pixar films. Pixar has managed to bring warmth and liveliness to its CGI animation that no other studio has matched -- its most recent film Soul is undoubtedly one of the most beautifully animated CGI films ever made. Does Earwig reach that standard? In some areas, yes, but in others, definitely not.
Earwig and the Witch Excels At Set and Character Design
The aspects of Earwig and the Witch that best match Pixar's quality animation are the brilliant character and set designs. Every character looks distinct and brilliantly realized. This holds especially true for Bella Yaga, the Mandrake and Earwig's mother in both the past and present.
The only failing of these character designs is character texture. The skin is often too smooth, resulting in characters without pores or blemishes. Compare Earwig to Pixar's Soul. The skin in Soul is far more detailed, resulting in characters that look more real. Likewise, the cat Thomas in Earwig lacks distinct fur -- compared to Pixar's groundbreaking work on Monsters Inc. 20 years ago, it seems underwhelming. While the designs are great, the lack of texture is a demerit. The textures look better than the humans in the first Toy Story, but that's over 25 years old, and there's a reason Toy Story focused primarily on characters made of plastic.
However, while the character designs are hurt slightly by lack of texture, Earwig's set designs have an incredible level of detail. The workroom in particular is lovingly rendered as this grimy mess of a place, filled with fermented sludge. Ghibli's animators masterfully light these richly-designed sets in ways that match the tone of the movie: fun, whimsical and enchanting.
Earwig and the Witch Struggles With Emotive Animation
However, while these are components of what makes Pixar so great, there are some key ingredients missing from Earwig and the Witch that keep it from being on-par with Pixar's CG animation -- or, for that matter, the rest of Ghibli's library. Most significantly, Earwig and the Witch struggles with making its characters emotive.
Studio Ghibli is renowned for its expressive animation. Even the ways the animators handle the movement of hair represent some aspect of a character's given emotion. In Earwig, however, the characters' faces and posture are too stiff to be effectively expressive. The faces don't transition smoothly between different emotions, but instead, they just oscillate between stock facial expressions. This stiffness takes viewers of the narrative and makes it harder to connect to the potentially interesting characters.
From an animation standpoint, is Earwig and the Witch overall a success. It's Studio Ghibli's first CG animated film and proof that, however divisive his stories are, Goro Miyazaki has talent in the field of animation. However, it's misleading to say that Earwig and the Witch's stiff animation is on par with the quality consistently demonstrated by Pixar.
Directed by Goro Miyazaki, Earwig and the Witch features the voices of Richard E. Grant, Kacey Musgraves, Dan Stevens and Taylor Paige. The film is now available on HBO Max.