Tales From Earthsea (2006)

Directed by Goro Miyazaki
Written by Goro Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa

For the first time in this marathon, I missed the initial Saturday showtime of the Studio Ghibli series at my local independent theater. However, they have been great enough to offer showtimes throughout the week for all the films of the series, so I was able to catch up with it last night! However, as I stated at the beginning of this marathon I would be experiences these films in their DUBBED versions. To this point, it has been an awesome experience and I don’t regret the decision to go DUBBED over SUBBED. However, this particular showing of the film Tales From Earthsea was only available in SUBBED for the time I could make it. Once again, however, I was not disappointed. It changed the experience slightly, but I don’t think it did so adversely. In fact, I think experiencing at least one of this series in a different format was a good thing for me to see the difference. It is different, just as this film was from the rest of the series, but not better, not worse. Just different.

This is, of course, a Miyazaki film, but not the Miyazaki I’ve becomes very familiar with through the course of this marathon, whose films transport me to wonderful, magical places and tell big, fantastic stories. This is Goro Miyazaki, Hayao’s son, and his first entry into the Ghibli canon is quite different than the rest of it, by my estimation. Based on the Earthsea series of books by Ursula K. Le Guin, Tales From Earthsea follows the story of Arren, a prince of Enlad, a town in Earthsea. After killing his father, Arren flees his hometown and encounters the Archmage, a wizard named Sparrowhawk. Sparrowhawk and Arren travel to a nearby town ruled by Lord Cob and her henchmen. After saving a young girl named Theru from kidnap into slavery, Arren and Sparrowhawk stay with Sparrowhawk’s old friend Tenar until Cob seeks them out to cripple their powers and sway the Balance of things in her dark favor.

I was immediately taken by the darkness of Tales From Earthsea, a definite departure from the rest of Studio Ghibli’s output to this point. Early on there is a nasty Dragon fight and a murder of a father by his son followed by an impending doom, child slavery and dark sorcery. This is not to say a good film cannot be made of these elements, it can, and I understand Grave of the Fireflies stands as a very dark, sad and depressing precursor to this film. But where Takahata treats that story with tender care for humanity, Miyazaki fails to make an impactful connection to the human condition. Arren, Sparrowhawk, Theru and Tenar are all promising characters, whose backgrounds and motivations are shrouded in too much mystery to be fully realized protagonists. What caused Arren to kill his father, the king? Where does Sparrowhawk come from and what is his history with Tenar? With Cob? We never really receive the answers to these questions.

Mystery is a solid narrative device, but when the film chooses to focus so much on its characters and fails to explore the fantasy world in which the story takes place, I am a little disappointed we didn’t get more of either. Earthsea is a fascinating place, with what seems like an interesting socio-economic structure, and fantastic scenery and setting which gets ignored to spend more time with our characters talking about each other, often within the confines of a farmhouse or fortress. The scenes in the new town when Sparrowhawk and Arren first arrive are among the most interesting because we get somewhat of a sense of setting and of what this world in which the story is unfolding is. And the animation is at times gorgeous, as it paints what seems to be beautiful landscape watercolor paintings. However, at other times the animation feels standard. It seems as though the right elements exist in this film, but never fully come together to be whole.

There have been elements of darkness in Ghibli films before. Princess MononokeSpirited AwayNausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, these are all films which deal with either frightening or serious situations, and yet Hayao Miyazaki is always able to infuse a level of joy and wonder into the narrative to balance things out. Now, for a film about the balance of things, Goro Miyazaki fails to find the joy, and maybe that was his intention. But the result is a film which feels too much like a standard Medieval outlaw story with too little imagination to fit into the Studio Ghibli tradition. And too few details to make meaningful connections with its characters. With such a lush and large world as the story’s backdrop, I would have thought this film would feel bigger than it was. But instead, two hours ran by and I felt like hardly anything interesting had happened.

** – Poor

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