Review: Tales From Earthsea

(Goro Miyazaki 2006, Japan)
(Originally posted at Lost in the Multiplex)

The latest in UK distributor StudioCanal’s series of Studio Ghibli Blu-ray rereleases, in which they lovingly dust off and restore the animation studio’s back catalogue to pristine hi-def condition, Tales From Earthsea arrives boasting the standard levels of Ghibli visual splendour and wonderment, but lacks a certain level of heart in its stolid and uninvolving story. Adapted from Ursula K. Le Guin’s series of “Earthsea” fantasy novels, chiefly story elements from the third book in the series “The Farthest Shore”, the film, like Ghibli’s best work, structures its narrative and characters around allegories concerning humanity’s seemingly powerless relationship with global warming, yet it feels heavy-handed and solemn this time round, marred by affectless characters and bad dialogue, keeping you at a chilly emotional distance.

Originally released in 2006 and subsequently repackaged in an English language dubbed edition – which is available alongside the Japanese version with English subtitles on the disc, Tales From Earthsea tells the tale of troubled Prince Arren (voiced by Matt Levin) who, after killing his father and stealing his mystical sword in the opening sequence, goes on a sweeping quest for redemption and self-discovery. Encountering Lord Archmage Sparrowhawk (gently brought to life by an authoritative Timothy Dalton), a master wizard searching for the force behind a recent disturbance in the natural balance of the land of Earthsea, the two embark on a journey that encompasses dragons, the decaying port city of Hort Town and its dangerous slave traders, and a former priestess and her timid ward, who may be more than she initially appears. With Sparrowhawk’s powers slowly dwindling, the group must ultimately band together to defeat the malevolent Lord Cob (Willem Dafoe), an androgynous sorcerer whose lust for eternal youth may be the undoing of Earthsea and it’s inhabitants.

Originally intended to be directed by prominent Ghibli filmmaker and co-founder Hayao Miyazaki, whose long-gestating pet project it had been since before his first feature Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind back in 1984, Tales From Earthsea was eventually passed along to his son Gorō Miyazaki due to allegiances to the superior Howl’s Moving Castle, and his absence is felt here in abundance. Marking the first directorial outing for Gorō, the film is meticulously animated and spotlessly rendered, matching a watercolour palette with some gloriously realised vistas, yet its glossy veneer is undermined somewhat by the peculiar absence of elements that made a vast majority of Ghibli’s films so memorable before and after it. The characters, thinly drawn and given unimaginative and droll dialogue, feel vague and impassionate, toiling under the threat of an unremarkable villain whose Machiavellian ploy for youth feels weightless and entirely without peril. Arren in particular is an unlikable protagonist, afflicted by an unknown force he cannot control especially when killing his father in an early scene that feels confusing and nonsensical, throwing the audience in at a precarious deep end and left to piece the storyline together.

Le Guin, who personally wanted the more experienced Hayao to helm the project (and was reportedly disappointed with the final outcome), has created a vast collection of stories and essays revolving around the fictional archipelago Earthsea, and her imagination is to some degree captured within the film, yet there is perhaps too much material for a single feature film to tackle in a limiting runtime. With such a grand scale and an abundance of material and characters to cover, Gorō seems to have buckled under the weight of the project, configuring a melange of disparate elements that are scarcely tied together and amount to a decidedly humourless fable about overcoming our inner darkness and accepting mortality. Hayao Miyazaki has made an untarnished career out of his abilities at mixing grandeur and fantastical spectacle with striking and emotive characters, and as luscious as the production behind Tales From Earthsea is – which is stressed in the Blu-ray’s copious amount of in-depth special features, it shows that the metaphorical apple has fallen far from the tree in the Miyazaki family.

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