Earwig and the Witch, the first feature made by the reborn Studio Ghibli after it seemingly closed up shop for good with 2014's When Marnie Was There and the 2016 co-production The Red Turtle, finds the company trying to create a new artistic identity for itself. I would say that I am uncertain of how stable this new identity actually is, but that would be a dissembling lie; I am extremely certain that Earwig and the Witch is simply awful, the worst Studio Ghibli production out of 22 features spanning 34 years by such a gargantuan margin that the only fun  lies in trying to come up with sufficiently florid insults to describe it.

A huge part of this is that Earwig and the Witch is an attempt to prove that the venerable company can move beyond the handsome, painterly traditional-style animation that has been its main focus, to embrace fully-rendered 3-D CGI animation. This is the form of animation that has almost completely taken over the marketplace in the United States, but remains considerably less ubiquitous in Japan, which raises the possibility: was Earwig designed to be more appealing abroad than at home? Is it simply a good-faith effort to see what the mothballed studio can do to shake itself up and move into new territory, as part of a sincere push to challenge itself and do something new? And regardless of the why, for what possible reason would the studio leadership decide to put this delicate experiment in the hands of director Miyazaki Goro? He openly doesn't care much about making animated movies, and whose entire film career is pretty clearly about trying to mend a chilly relationship with his dad, Ghibli co-founder and international legend Miyazaki Hayao. He also directed what had been, till now, the one and only actually bad Studio Ghibli feature, 2006's Tales from Earthsea, which would tend to serve as good evidence that you shouldn't ask him do anything too hard (he also directed the extremely unobjectionable, unmemorable From Up on Poppy Hill, in 2011). Hard like trying to translate the studio's house style into a brand new animation medium that has some crucial differences from the rich flatness where that house style thrived, for example.

I could go on for a very long time about how suffocatingly ugly Earwig and the Witch is, but then I might forget to spend any time ripping apart its boring, superficial story. So for the moment, allow me to hit pause on "form", so I can quickly dismiss "content". The film is based on the posthumous 2011 book by English fantasy legend Diana Wynne Jones, whose work also formed the basis for the Studio's Ghibli's 2004 Howl's Moving Castle, by Miyazaki père; it concerns a child left mysteriously at an orphanage by her mother, a witch on the run from 12 other witches. Who she is, why she runs, who the other witches are - all of this is left in the deep background of the film, though the implication of the last couple of minutes is that this is mean to hook into a sequel. Or maybe it's just meant to feel expansive and imaginatively vague. Whatever is going on, the child grows up to be an intelligent, egocentric, manipulative girl nicknamed Earwig (Hirasawa Kokoro in the Japanese dub, Taylor Paige Henderson in English - for the record I watched this in Japanese, at some small effort), who takes great delight in being the unofficial boss of the orphanage. This comes to an abrupt halt when she is adopted, against her will,* by a witch named Bella Yaga (Terajima Shinobu / Vanessa Marshall), who doesn't seem to care about Earwig's ancestry and just needs a house slave to keep the place tidy. Earwig chafes against this hard, and immediately begins to figure out how she can learn some spells from Bella Yaga, in the process tormenting her new guardian and the quasi-human Mandrake (Toyokawa Etsushi / Richard E. Grant) through various cunning pranks, concocted with Bella Yaga's resentful talking cat Thomas (Hamada Gaku / Dan Stevens).

Eventually, this all leads to... nothing? Earwig and the Witch is only 82 minutes long, for which I am grateful, but that's not time spent in service to building a narrative as such. Bella Yaga and the Mandrake are both unpleasant without being full-on villains, and Earwig herself is a bit too abrasive to be an especially sympathetic protagonist, so basically we're just watching bratty people staring at each other with unmixed loathing, until eventually Bella Yaga breaks and decides to find the situation amusing. These kind of largely conflict-free stories are nothing new for Studio Ghibli, and Earwig and the Witch particularly resembles the amiably low-key preteen witch story Kiki's Delivery Service, a 1989 film from the elder Miyazaki (the new film isn't running from it, either; Thomas is a dead ringer for that film's Jiji, given a three-dimensional makeover). But if there's going to be no real narrative drive to speak of, there has to be something else: some rich character, or warm emotional journey. Earwig and the Witch has neither of these; it's vaguely (and only vaguely) charming, but in a pretty ratty, secondhand way, and only because stories about little English orphans have the accrued emotional weight of generations of such helpless waifs. At best, the story is incredibly lifeless and boring.

But it is, at least, only lifeless and boring, which still makes it good enough to be the best the film has. In the absence of conflict or characters or emotions, the last vestige could still be: ah well, at least it looks nice! And Earwig and the Witch looks like absolute shit. This was mostly made by second-stringers and outsider contractors, while the real talent at Ghibli went over to Daddy Miyazaki's slowly-gestating next feature, How Do You Live? That, coupled with the studio's lack of familiarity with this particular mode of animation, leaves us with a film that's remarkably stiff and dead-looking, with characters who have the warm organic flexibility of frozen plastic, from their faces to their shiny fiberglass helmets of what indifferently pretends to be "hair". The production team has decided, not unreasonably, to approach this the way that they approach tradition 2-D animation, which in the Japanese industry usually means a very rich, refined variant on limited animation. That is, the characters are pretty simple and round, they don't move very much, and when they do move it's with a limited framerate. It's not a style that was ever designed for three-dimensional figures, and even in stills, something feels ungainly and "off" about it; in movement, it's unspeakably nauseating and unconvincing.

Making things worse, Earwig and the Witch closely follows the other major convention of Japanese animation: while the characters are spare and simplistic, the backgrounds are detailed and complex and beautiful. This means, in this case, some very fine and sophisticated lighting effects, which interact with those sleek plastic figures all wrong. I mean, it's right, the mathematics inside the computer make sure of that, but it's a stylistic mismatch that feels horrible in 3-D animation, just as much as it feels almost banal and unnoticeable in 2-D animation. The soft, realistic lighting and focal effects look like hell when applied to such flat cartoon figures, who already feel slightly mind-melting when they have depth and volume that these design features weren't created for.

Taken all together, the result is a film not merely devoid of any appeal, it feels like it has been carefully engineered to reject anything appealing coming along by accident. It's not egregiously ugly, any more than its egregiously bad at telling a story, but egregiousness would almost feel less disgusting than the merely unambitious, meekly crummy garbage this offers. Which is to say: my star rating is certainly coming from a place of hostility, not critical objectivity. But then again, Earwig and the Witch does seem to be going out of its way to court that hostility.

*Surely, this isn't how it works.