Reviewby Daniel DeLorme, Aug 11th 2006
A mysterious malaise is afflicting the land. The kingdom is withering, people are acting weird, and wizards are losing their magic. Even dragons - which should never enter the human realm - have been sighted. Something is wrong and Ged, a wandering wizard, is searching for the cause. While travelling he encounters Arren, a deeply haunted and perturbed youth; Arren seems to have something very dark inside of him, a cruel and merciless side that comes out when he tries to save a young girl from slave traders. For the witch Kumo this is a perfect opportunity; she can use the boy's fears against the very one who would help him, her old nemesis Ged.
In the course of writing this review, one thing became clear to me; we may have to start talking about "Hayao" since the old standby, "Miyazaki", is now ambiguous.
In the TV commercials for the movie, Toshio Suzuki (the producer) was imploring viewers to go see this "parent vs. child showdown" (oyako taiketsu). Indeed it is almost impossible to judge Gedo Senki as a standalone work; this is a Ghibli movie after all, so comparisons to previous Ghibli movies - and especially Hayao's films - are inevitable.
That said, this movie doesn't have that "Hayao magic", that special blend of fantasy and excitement augmented by a precious human touch that Hayao Miyazaki is so adept at. And neither should we expect this style of any director other than Hayao; not even Isao Takahata has the same style. It would be unfair to expect this from Goro just because he is Hayao's son. So instead of the personal and human touch of Hayao, we are treated to something more epic and serious. In fact, this movie takes itself so seriously that I cannot remember a single funny moment, which is a letdown; gone is the signature sense of playful humor that has permeated Ghibli's work from the beginning. When you see a world in which slavery is a common thing, it becomes clear that this is very different from the regular family-friendly Ghibli movies. In tone, one might say it is closer to Mononoke Hime than any other Ghibli film. Gedo Senki's art style is typical Ghibli but the story is typical epic fantasy, which is a little jarring; given the source material (Ursula K. LeGuin's EarthSea novels) this should be expected, but it still comes as a suprise to see a Ghibli movie with a story in the vein of Lodoss War.
The prologue opens with an ominous warning that the balance of the world is collapsing. This naturally leads the viewer to expect an epic story about said balance, but that turns out to be a false lead with no follow-through. Much like Howl, the events of the wider world are only the backdrop against which the more personal tribulations of the main cast takes place. And there lies the biggest problem of the movie; the false lead looks more interesting than the real story. The lack of connection between the prologue and the rest of the story is the one flaw that really hurts this film. That's not to say that Gedo Senki is bad by any means. We are introduced to Arren, a young man running from his past and his fears, and Ged, the old wizard who takes the angsty Arren under his wing. Rather than restoring the balance of the world, this story is about restoring the balance of light and shadow within one's heart. All the staples of the fantasy genre are combined into a movie that, much like Mononoke Hime, isn't shy about having one or two deeper messages to tell. Goro wants to tell us that life is short and fragile, and precisely because of that it must be cherished. The dialogue and manner in which this message is presented is a bit ham-handed but all in all it's quite a nice story. Focusing on the simple aspects of life is after all one of Studio Ghibli's specialties, and Goro wisely avoids the trap of trying to cram the whole of the Earthsea saga into one movie. Keeping the story focused on a few characters allows the film to move along briskly towards its conclusion, which wraps things up nicely and maintains the film's message. Characterization is fairly good, but the cast is mostly made up of traditional Ghibli archetypes. Each of them is interesting and well-defined in his own way, but one might be tempted to play a "who's twin is this" game. The main exception to this is Arren; as a confused and angsty (but thankfully not whiny) youth, he is somewhat of a anomaly in Ghibli films, and a breath of fresh air. Really, the only way in which this movie suffers is by comparison to Miyazaki senior.
Visually... well, this is a Ghibli production after all. Even without Hayao at the helm, Studio Ghibli is chock-full of skilled and experienced artisans. The animation is as splendid as usual but it's the background art that really steals the show. The movie is full of grandiose scenes that just steal your breath away; in fact, these wide and majestic scenes make it especially worthwhile to see the film in a theatre. The music was another high note (pun intended). It is simply superb, with a medieval sound very suited to the theme of the movie. The main theme in particular has a highly hummable melody guaranteed to get inside your head, especially after hearing it in a lovely A Cappella rendition by Aoi Teshima during the movie.
Gedo Senki is a good movie, but its most remarkable feature may be that it seems to herald a transition to a new era. At times it seems very Ghibli-ish and at other times unlike Ghibli at all. Hayao is not finished yet but one cannot help but wonder what will be "Ghibli after Hayao"? This question looms over Gedo Senki and makes it difficult to enjoy the movie for what it really is: a great entry in the epic fantasy genre and overall a pretty good movie... just don't go in expecting a Hayao movie.
Overall : B
Story : C+
Animation : A-
Art : A
Music : A-
+ Good art and animation; interesting world; awesome for fans of epic fantasy.
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