Reviewby Michael Toole,
Tales From Earthsea
The land of Earthsea is out of balance. Haunted by grim premonitions, the king falls, slain by his son. The misguided and lost prince Arren is taken in by the archmage Sparrowhawk, who hopes to bring him towards redemption and his true destiny. As the world crumbles around them, the pair relentlessly search for the source of the imbalance, a wicked wizard from Sparrowhawk's distant past.
I was intrigued when I heard that Studio Ghibli were targeting Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea books for adaptation. I read a couple of them in my youth, and they're good, sturdy fantasy adventure for young adults. Going from Howl's Moving Castle, with its similar pedigree, to Earthsea seemed to be an attempt to move from strength to strength. But then something funny happened: Goro Miyazaki was named director. Goro Miyazaki, son of the famous Hayao, is a trained and talented architect and landscape designer, and had most recently been curating the famous Studio Ghibli Museum. He was in an odd situation—he'd been around the studio his whole life, and understood animation production quite well, but had never worked in it. The elder Miyazaki, it was reported, wasn't wild about the choice, and was refraining from assisting with the film's production.
The finished film, Tales from Earthsea, did what Studio Ghibli films typically do upon their domestic release—it made a bunch of money at the box office. But reception seemed to be decidedly mixed, and it's astoundingly easy to see why. Watching this film after having decades of those wonderful Studio Ghibli movies like Nausicaä and Spirited Away kind of beggars belief. Goro Miyazaki's Earthsea is stiff and scattered and mediocre. It struggles to make sense, to provide entertaining dialogue and action and a clear plotline. It's incoherent. We expect none of these things from Ghibli films, so watching this one is surprising and instructive. But it's still deeply weird.
In a magical kingdom out of balance with the world, a dispirited young prince murders his father and flees, terrified, from his destiny. He's eventually taken in by the archmage, Sparrowhawk, who seeks to restore that balance to Earthsea. But why is the world out of balance? Because Sparrowhawk says so, that's why; we never get a clear explanation of what being “out of balance” really means. In their travels, the pair are harassed by a slaver named Hare, but soon come to seek refuge with Sparrowhawk's old friend Tenar. She introduces them to a mysterious young girl named Therru. Arren is angry and sad, and Therru is fearful and suspicious, but they slowly open up to each other. They'll have to rely on each other, to brace themselves with Arren's destiny and Therru's mysterious power, to face down the true threat to Earthsea's balance—the failed archmage, Cob.
This movie has men at arms, and dragons, and castles, and swords, and spells, and all that good stuff. It has a wise old mentor and his stupid kid student, a gentle matron and a mysterious girl, a slimy henchman and a menacing wizard. All of the building blocks for a good adventure are right there, but what Goro Miyazaki lacks in making this film is the glue to put them all together. We learn very little about the characters, their pasts, and their personalities. The book is bursting with neat ideas, such as the concept that people have common names and “true names,” secret things of considerable power (Sparrowhawk's true name is Ged, which is why the film's Japanese title is Gedo Senki). True names come into play in the film, but are not explained. Cause and effect are tenuous in this movie, and the characters frequently seem to cease speaking to each other altogether, instead sounding like they're just standing there and giving speeches (everygoddamnbody gets a speech in this movie) in the same room.
And Tales from Earthsea is so boring! It's a 75-minute adventure spread across an increasingly dreary 120 minutes, like a modest pat of cold butter destructively smashed and swiped against a large tranche of warm bread. The camera eye of the film is static; the movie barely seems to move. It's all medium shots of two characters interacting, long shots of travel, and close-ups for the important dialogue. Every once in a while the camera does break free of its moorings, but it happens so infrequently that it's startling when it does. It's as if Goro Miyazaki came into this film unfamiliar with the idea of really using the camera to tell the story. You learn to do something like that in film school, and do it well with experience. Take those things away and you might still have a visually interesting film, but Tales from Earthsea never gets there.
It's not all bad news, though. Goro Miyazaki has, in my estimation, a unique gift for really making scenery come alive in his works. You see it in From Up On Poppy Hill, and you see it in Tales from Earthsea, particularly in the extravagant backgrounds. They bring to mind the great paintings by Maxfield Parrish; Miyazaki and his team don't have the famous artist's crispness, but they share his appreciation for light and shadow, for lush green foliage and big Roman columns. One of Tales from Earthsea's central ideas is the vain struggle for eternal life. Sparrowhawk is intent on teaching his charge Arren that this is futile, and there's a great scene where explains that death is necessary to keep the life cycle going. “Would you bring the entire ocean to a standstill, just to save one wave?” he asks the disillusioned boy.
In turning towards the vocal performances, I have to say that it was interesting to watch the film in Japanese. The role of Sparrowhawk, the wise old archmage, is played by the late, great Bunta Sugawara, who made his name as a steely-eyed, violent, and principled yakuza in the Battles without Honor and Humanity films. He's a fine voice actor, but it's kind of weird—Sparrowhawk looks like him, in a way that I kept wondering was intentional or not. My other comment on the Japanese cast is that the role of the wizard Cob is played by Yuko Tanaka. Cob is an androgynous man, and I don't always buy it when a lady plays a man in anime, but I think it works well here. The dubbed version features wholly forgettable performances by Matt Levin as Arren and Blaire Restaneo as Therru. Timothy Dalton is splendid as Sparrowhawk, the film's anchor, even though he doesn't have a lot to work with. Mariska Hargitay is alright as Tenar, but there's a part of the film where her character says, “This reminds me of the tombs…” and I hear the voice of Detective Benson from Law & Order: SVU and assume she's talking about the Manhattan Detention Complex. Cheech Marin is fine as Hare, driving home the notion that Disney probably just rounded up whoever was on the lot that day to record the film's voices. The biggest strike against the dub is Willem Defoe as Cob. He's a great actor, but not a great voice actor; in Tales from Earthsea, he only really ever sounds like Willem Defoe trying to sound creepy.
Ghibli regular Joe Hisaishi and his distinctive, soaring musical scoring is absent from Tales from Earthsea. Tamiya Terashima does an OK job instead; his music is suitably sweeping and evocative, just not very memorable. I also have a problem with the character designs, by Akihiko Yamashita. He also did character designs for Howl's Moving Castle, and I thought his work was fine in that film. But here, the characters seem simplistic, not fully realized, almost like discount versions of Ghibli designs. They look weird, especially when they're expressing anger. Artistically, the best stuff in Tales from Earthsea is going on in the background.
Should I even mention the Blu-ray? It looks and sounds excellent, and has the usual Ghibli extras of the running storyboard plus a couple of additional tidbits. There's no real insight provided for the making of this film, which is too bad—Goro Miyazaki's next film, Poppy Hill, had a blu-ray loaded with features about how the movie got made. When you have a movie like this, a mixed production with a troubled background, a bracingly honest commentary or documentary can, to a certain extent, save it. There's none of that here, though.
I look at Tales from Earthsea and can only conclude that it was a mistake to try and get Goro Miyazaki to make the kind of film that his father might have made. The elder Miyazaki spent years trying to convince LeGuin to let him adapt Earthsea, but when she finally relented, he was busy with Howl's Moving Castle. Producer Toshio Suzuki wasn't drastically wrong to appoint Goro director—after all, he had the acumen to get the film done, but it's a jumbled mess that doesn't play to his strengths or background. Happily, his next film is much better. We make fun of films like Origin ~Spirits of the Past~, Green Legend Ran, and Brave Story for trying to be mimic Ghibli films without really having the zest to nail the landing. Tales from Earthsea is in the same league as them; it walks like a Ghibli film, quacks a bit like a Ghibli film, but it isn't the total package that the studio's other films are.
Overall : C
Story : c-
Animation : b-
Art : a
Music : b
+ Strong, atmospheric background art. Good performances by the lead actor in each version.
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