For many Hayao Miyazaki is synonymous with the award-winning Studio Ghibli. However, Ghibli has another director from that family: Goro Miyazaki. Tales From Earthsea was his directing debut, and I had the opportunity to review the Blu-Ray/DVD set for the film.
In the land of Earthsea, crops are dwindling, dragons have reappeared, and humanity is giving way to chaos. Journey with Lord Archmage Sparrowhawk, a master wizard, and Arren, a troubled young prince, on a tale of redemption and self-discovery as they search for the force behind the mysterious imbalance that threatens to destroy their world.
Although I’ve heard of Le Guin’s novels, I’ve never read them so Ghibli’s film is my first encounter with the Earthsea universe. Unfortunately, I can’t say it was a particularly positive experience.
It’s not that the animation was bad. Ghibli, as usual, delivers breathtaking landscapes, thrilling action, bustling urban scenes, and cozy intimate moments. And although Therru’s Song isn’t that inspiring, the overall orchestral score is pretty good. The main issue with the film is the storytelling.
It opens with dragons battling over the ocean. Shortly thereafter, we see dragon artwork, plus the packaging has a dragon prominently displayed on it. So I’m thinking the story is a fantasy epic about dragons.
It’s really about humankind struggling with a world imbalance, and the brief glimpse of fighting dragons is merely an indicator—like rising ocean levels—of how bad things have gotten. And the imbalance doesn’t just affect the external environment; it’s also degrading people’s magical abilities and the fabric of society as a whole.
It’s a multifaceted problem, but the film doesn’t do a very good job of presenting it. After the brief excitement of watching a possessed Prince Arren kill his father, the pace slows to a crawl as he and the mage Sparrowhawk journey across the ravaged lands of Earthsea. And while those images deliver a sense of external decay, the narrative provides little background on the inhabitants’ original mental and spiritual state. As such, when characters fuss about how far humanity has fallen, I, as a newcomer to the Earthsea world, have no idea what standard they’re using to measure it. We also never learn what Arren’s “shadow” is exactly or the significance of “true names.”
And for a complex worldwide problem, it has a surprisingly simple cause. Everything gets tied to the actions of one bad guy. So the solution boils down to “defeat the bad guy,” and while the resulting duel is visually stunning, it comes out of nowhere.
Also coming out of nowhere is the romance between Prince Arren and Therru. As someone who vacillates between a violent maniac and a paranoid emo, Arren isn’t very compelling as a main character, let alone a romantic lead. As for Therru, her burn scar aside, she has all the appeal of a hissing alley cat. She rebuffs Arren after he rescues her from slavers, and when he and Sparrowhawk get invited to stay at her guardian’s home, she threatens him with a stick. But then Arren catches her singing alone in a pasture, and suddenly, they’re besties. As a romance, I find their relationship more baffling than captivating.
Extras include an exclusive booklet, feature-length storyboards (on Blu-Ray disc only), Birth Story of the Film Soundtrack (on Blu-Ray disc only), Birth Story of Therru’s Song (on Blu-Ray disc only), NTV special (on Blu-Ray disc only), TV spots, and the original theatrical trailers.
Tales of Earthsea has the look and sound of great Ghibli film, but the storytelling is lacking. The narrative fails to explain the complex setting adequately, the hero is difficult to relate to, and there’s no chemistry between the main couple. The film feels as if it’s trying to encompass adventure, social commentary, spirituality, and romance but winds up falling short in all aspects.
First published at The Fandom Post.