Reviewby Tim Henderson, Jan 6th 2008
Tales from Earthsea
DVD - (2 Disc Set)
Played out against a backdrop of much larger, earth-shaking events is a tale of a young boy and his self-appointed wizard guardian. Haunted by his own shadow, this boy, Arren, must first overcome his own inner struggle and learn of the precious value of life in all forms. With assistance from the mysterious girl Therru, he may yet prove able to resist the immortal lure of the evil wizard Cob…
Title: Tales from Earthsea.
It was back in 1995 that Studio Ghibli released Whisper of the Heart unto its native market of Japan. Directed by the (comparatively) youthful Yoshifumi Kondo, it was a signpost that pointed to a road of change, or at least that's what everyone thought at the time; Hayao Miyazaki himself would go on to allow speculation that his forthcoming Princess Mononoke may well be his final cinematic outing, presumably secure in the knowledge that Kondo held enough promise for the future. Whisper of the Heart wasn't the most typical of Ghibli films, especially to any eyes that consider the Miyazaki classics to be the quintessence of the studio's output. It was a much more placid work than many that had come before and both fantastical creatures and palpable scenes of undiluted delight were in seemingly short supply, replaced instead by a meditative pace and a sense of honest significance placed upon the most mundane of activities. It was apparent that Kondo wasn't a fantastical filmmaker of Miyazaki's calibre, but it was also apparent that he was aware of this and was more than able to work the script he had been provided with to his own style and vision. The future Ghibli was going to be different, it seemed, but that was ok: Miyazaki had given his gifts, and one of the final ones was an heir who promised to bring with a whole host of new and unique presents, each just as special as his forerunner's in their own way.
But then, back in 1998, the 47-year-old prodigy would suffer fatally from an aneurysm. Ghibli lost its most promising heir; the world went on to gain Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle.
For all the splendour of these two films, the Japanese public, and indeed – since Spirited Away's Oscar haul – the world at large, still need to face the simple reality that Hayao Miyazaki won't be around forever. Someday somebody will have to fill his shoes if the studio is to continue, and time is running out.
To the family it is, then, dictated producer Suzuki: To the children.
The tension between Hayao and his son-cum-director Goro has been quite well documented, to the point where it was manipulated towards marketing. It only takes a single viewing of the film to be able to emphasise with any concerns that Miyazaki may have harboured about his son's directorial ability as, very simply put, Tales from Earthsea just isn't up to the standard of Ghibli's astounding pedigree.
Opening appropriately enough upon a setting of a stormy sea, Earthsea's most immediate and initial moments show a degree of promise: the presentation has such a resolutely old-school Ghibli look to it that even the water itself is totally devoid of any obvious CG presence. It's an energetic moment, and the two dragons that then tango in the sky are awesome in both their design and powerful in their animation. The overall vibe is quite dark, but acceptably so and there's even a momentary flicker of a chance that Earthsea could become a sort of spiritual successor to Princess Mononoke, a romantic glimmer of hope that son Goro may have picked up exactly where his father had once considered allowing his own work to conclude. The sad truth, however, is that for all the richness of its original source material (and the source material is vast in its riches), Tales from Earthsea quickly degenerates into a one-dimensional film from the perspectives of plot, direction and even animation.
There's no doubt that the movie feels a bit unrefined, although on its own this seems a mite unfair as a criticism. After all, when viewed objectively the same could be said of Nausicaa, a film that has the luxurious benefit of an immediate sense of nostalgia. Earthsea doesn't share such a privileged position. Instead, as indeed Nausicaa must once have, Earthsea has a desperate need to prove itself. It has to tell its tale well and with a genuine sense of caring so as to make any scruffy edges immediately forgivable, so that it may some day vindicate its own rose-tinted lens. So that, as Toshio Suzuki himself argued when appointing his director, true inspiration can shine through in such a way as to make any lack of experience insignificant.
The plot is of a confused prince, Arren, on the run after murdering his own father (although the film seems to omit any clearly communicated motivation for this) and left at his own death's door until being taken under the wing of the Archmage Sparrowhawk. From here on a lesson on the importance of all life is taught – preached with a heavy hand, even – and the story quickly becomes bogged down in the most basic rescue operations as it runs a not-grey-enough line between good and evil. Too much is expressed through extended dialogues and too little is communicated through character action. Character development seems both rushed and ambivalent, by and large the film ends up verbally dictating its themes rather than allowing its audience to simply feel them out for themselves. Plot strands are left all over the script-editing floor, leaving the whole experience feeling largely and un-intendedly arbitrary. Overall, it's remarkably simplistic to the point where it will likely shock anyone who has read any of Ursula Le Guin's work. Indeed, it's entirely understandable that the author herself was ultimately dismayed by the picture.
Goro's inexperience spreads further still. There are some shots and examples of editing on display here that break some of the most fundamental rules of filmmaking. Rules are perhaps made to be broken, but it always works best when the one breaking them knows what he or she is doing and just how to go about it. Goro, however, just seems to lack a complete, rounded knowledge of everything that needs to be done. There is more than one occasion where a series of camera angles show a character moving through a location with no proper sense of orientation, for example. The sense of location is hindered as a result, and even if the sort of confusion imparted had been intentional (which it most certainly isn't) then the editing would still feel jarring and lacking in grace of flow.
But not all is lost. Goro shows potential during the odd action scene. The dragons at the film's very beginning are magnificent, as they are during later appearances, and any sudden bursts of violence are handled with an acute sense of chaos that provides quick, punchy thrills in a way that no prior Ghibli film has managed. A shame then that such violence feels at odds with the spirit, if not the more direct content, of Le Guin's original work. For every redemption, it seems, there is something dragging Earthsea back down again. There are many splendid vistas on display, but they too often feel somewhat conventional. More criminal still – and the importance of this cannot be overstated –, the animation lacks in both body and presence. The shadowing on the characters themselves rarely feels properly considered, making them feel less like people and more like paper cutouts. The movements also feel rushed, and little if anything is communicated by the way that any one person moves, which is in many ways the most mournful mishap of all.
This nonetheless remains an impressive release. Voice acting is fine, if not exceptional, on both audio tracks and the limited edition is packaged every bit as wonderfully as Howl's was before it, right down to the front OFLC graphic being a removable sticker. Extras aren't quite as plentiful as may be hoped, with only a couple of conventional featurettes and trailers on top of the storyboards that have become something of a Ghibli de-regular. All the same, full props go to Madman for the presentation of their release, even if the completely silent main menu feels a little odd.
A shame then that the film itself isn't more worthy of the respectful treatment that it's received. Just how such soulful source material can become this narrow and straightforward and completely drained of genuine emotion is baffling. How it could happen at the hands of Studio Ghibli is more baffling still, to the point of being a point of very real concern. It's not that Earthsea is a bad film – far from it. It's just flat and somewhat uninspired, lacking both Hayao's magical touch of wonder and climax as well as any voice of its own, which is a shame as it's easy to assume that Kondo may have been able to do wonderful things with the world of Earthsea. It may be that, in this particular case, there was a dilemma of a father's passion being pressed down upon the son; that Goro was miscast as director for this particular project and would be more comfortable working with other ideas, as indeed some of Earthsea's action scenes may imply. Be that as it may, this is a far cry from a stellar debut. Tales from Earthsea is a pretty good film at best, but this is a big problem considering that it should have been nothing less than exceptional. It's worth remembering that Rome once ruled the known world.
Overall : C
Story : C-
Animation : A-
+ Glimpses of promise in some action scenes.
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