Another fine fantasy movie from Studio Ghibli, but this debut from Hayao’s son Goro Miyazaki misses out on the magic of Spirited Away and the potential of the Earthsea novels…
Returning once again to an adaption of a western book, the latest effort from Studio Ghibli is as beautiful as ever, but sadly doesn’t capture the magic of their previous films.
Tales From Earthsea tells the story of Prince Arran, a young man who has inexplicably killed his own father, and has fled as far away from his kingdom as possible. There he meets the archmage Ged, also known as Sparrowhawk, who befriends him and invites him to accompany him on his travels.
The mage is searching for the source of a curse that seems to be destroying the balance of good in evil throughout the world. Dragons are seen fighting in the West, crops whither and livestock fall ill. The trail leads to Hort Town, a wretched place where drug use is common and men, women and children are kidnapped and sold into the slave trade.
When Arren saves a saves a girl, Therru, from the traders, their destinies become linked when he later finds her in the charge of an old friend of Ged’s. In fact another acquaintance of his, another powerful wizard called Cob, has much to do with what has befallen the world. And only Arren and Therru have any chance of saving it… but how?
It was some 20 years ago when Hayao Miyazaki, director of Studo Ghibli classics like Castle In The Sky, Kiki’s Delivery Service and, of course, Spirited Away, first expressed his interest in bringing the Earthsea books to the screen to their author Ursula K. Le Guin. At the time she had no knowledge of his work, and thinking all animation was merely of the ‘Disney’ kind (as she puts it rather ironically, considering Ghibli’s later distribution agreement with Buena Vista), was dead set against it.
Many years later Guin came to see some of Hayao’s films and eventually made it clear that she would be interested in him adapting her work. Hayao, busy on other projects and at the time fully intending to retire from filmmaking (do they ever?) bestowed the duty of directing to his son Goro, for what would be his debut. Her disappointment has been made clear in a statement on her own website. It’s also clear that the final film has very little to do with her novels, taking only slight inspiration from the third book in the Earthsea series, The Farthest Shore.
Which is surprising. Considering the raft of fantasy films that have attempted to follow the success of Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy, the Earthsea novels are perhaps one of the closest in terms of source material to matching that scope. One thing for sure, fans of the books should look away now…
Goro’s take on the story greatly simplifies the events, taking joy in the uncomplicated rural farm scenes he show, but greatly slows whatever pace he’d managed to pick up. Often dialogue talks of great battles and adventures of the past – perfect opportunity to show this you might think, but no, instead we just get, well, more dialogue.
His adaptation absorbs far too common Japanese Anime themes into Guin’s events. Man’s search for power though raping the world of its resources, his greed is his undoing, etc. It’s easy to see parallels with the disease that befalls their cattle and starts to cross over to man, and more recent real life scares like bovine spongiform encephalopathy and Bird flu. The strong indication is that true fulfilment can be found returning to the land, even if you’re a powerful wizard.
Most bizarre is the depiction of the Cob as an androgynous male wizard, far more feminine looking if anything, voiced by a female actress in the original soundtrack. (Played by Willem Dafoe in the English soundtrack, for once far less disturbing.) It picks up on unhealthy Japanese obsessions with sexuality that should have no place in a children’s movie, but maybe it’s a bad idea to look at these elements too closely. Interestingly the film caused a very public rift between Goro and his father, detailed here.
It’s not a bad film by any means, at points it’s really quite moving. It’s just that as a whole the film feels somewhat trapped by not embracing a scale that could so easily have been taken from the original source. (Could there have been budget limitations?)
Post originally published 15 January 2008.
Tales From Earthsea is released on Dual Format (Blu-ray + DVD) in the UK on 25 June, 2012.
Home media details
Distributor: StudioCanal (UK)
Edition: Dual Format (Blu-Ray + DVD) (2012)
The Blu-Ray edition of the film comes with a superb transfer of the film for picture and sound, with both original Japanese and English-dubbed soundtracks.
Extras wise, the additions make up for the short fallings of the original 2-disc release, with two new featurettes: The Birth of the Film Soundtrack, which is an hour long; and Behind the Studio: Origins of Earthsea.
A solid package that might not bring you round to loving the film, but sure makes you appreciate it more.
Distributor: Optimum Home Entertainment (UK)
Edition: 2-Disc DVD (2008)
As with many of Optimum's Studio Ghibli releases, this includes an angle funtion to see storyboards throughout the main feature, along with a great transfer and variety of audio options on both the English dub and original Japanese soundtrack.
Sadly the second disc doesn't really inspire with it's extras. A glossy NTV Special doesn't really give any depth on the making on the film. Nor does the original trailer. Only a feature on the actors behind the microphone provides any enlightenment.