Otaku News Special: Tales from Earthsea Review
Date: 2007 July 24th Tuesday [17:53] | Posted By: Azure
Optimum are releasing the latest Ghibli Feature Tales from Earthsea in the UK on a limited number on cinema screens on August the 3rd this will be followed by a DVD release. We take a look at the dubbed version of Goro Miyazaki's debut film.
From the opening moments of Earthsea it is quite clear that this is a Ghibli movie. The way the characters are drawn and move on the screen is extremely distinctive. There's also a strong hint of older anime such as Toei's 'Little Norse Prince', it's difficult to say how much of this is a deliberate use of nostalgia and how much of it a deliberate result of a much more simplistic use of animation. Either way it doesn't quite gel right. This could have worked well had Goro Miyazaki made a conscious effort to draw on a wider range of sources for the design of the film. The Earthsea of the film seems to be set in a typical Ghibli pastoral landscape, even if it is in somewhat of a state of decay. Ursula K. Le Guin the author of the books on which the film was based, consciously made an effort to set Earthsea in a far more culturally diverse setting than the stereotypical Western 'high-fantasy' setting. There has been an argument that the world presented in the film does represent this from a Japanese standpoint, but this view to me holds little credit. The people, and even the deer like animals used in place of horses could have come straight out of any number of other Ghibli movies.
One of the first scenes in the film shows Arren Prince of Enlad murdering his father. There's little explanation for this, other that some indication that Arren may not be in his right mind. There's a hint later on that Arren may have been manipulated, but it's difficult to tell. It's possible that Goro Miyazaki was trying to draw in a plot point from an earlier Earthsea book in which Ged was chased by a creature known as a gebbeth because of crimes he committed against the balance of nature. The gebbeth like creature that follows Arren does much the same as the one in the original Earthsea, it acts as a visible metaphor for Arren's state of mind making visible his burdens.
Like many aspects of this film it seems to require knowledge of the Earthsea books just as much as it veers away from them. This means that it is a very disjointed piece of work, the film is at its best when it lets the action flow and shows but doesn't tell. On the other hand since the film is meant to be a stand alone work it leaves too much out. Whilst Le Guin could do so because Farthest Shore was a sequel the film really needed to take the time to explain a little more about the world it was set in. It's extremely frustrating that there was ample time to do so as Ged and Arren journeyed together.
Basic facts about the world of Earthsea were left out such as the fact that the 'true names' of everything are needed to use magic, or that by obtaining the true name of another person you have power over them. A similar idea was used in Spirited Away when Chihiro looses her name. The true meaning behind Arren's visions of the Dry land are not fully explained despite hints at the start. The final climax was crying out to be set there, and in several places I thought the action would shift there but instead there was a standard 'boss fight'.
The film is cleanly divided into three parts, the initial set-up, Arren and Sparrowhawk's journey and the battle with the dark wizard Cob. In each of these segments there is a clear break, and each could almost be a different film. In the second segment the characters of Tenar and Therru make an appearance. Tenar is one of the strongest characters in the film, she lives a relatively secluded life looking after Therru whom she found abandoned. The chemistry between her and Ged is one of the most compelling aspects of the film, as it gently hints that they have a strong history. Therru's presence is a little more troublesome, on one hand she is a typical Ghibli heroine she knows her own mind and is willing to put everything on the line to prove it. On the other the resolution of her storyline is weak, rather than defending her beliefs in the end she seems to worship Arren and seems to act for him rather than her own reasons. Therru's best scene is the one in which she sings the theme song, the lyrics are extremely meaningful and actually does a superb job of explaining several of the major themes and ideas of the book. It's just a shame that the film shifts away again from these ideas in the third part. The dark wizard Cob makes an appearance at this point. Sadly though, this is another part of the film where knowledge of the books makes his appearance more significant, whilst in this case his connection to Ged is explained it seems a little weak. His pale appearance and obsession with immortality put him in the same mould as Naruto's Orouchimaru or Harry Potter's Voledemort but sadly with little style of his own he doesn't stand out.
The screening we saw was dubbed and as with other recent English Ghibli dubs was overseen by Pixar's John Lasseter. The voice acting is absolutely superb, the voices suit the characters. Timothy Dalton's Ged is absolutely magnetic, playing well against Mariska Hargitay's maternal Tenar.
Tales from Earthsea suffers from a lack of focus, its three part division makes it an extremely disjointed experience. It's also hard to decide what the film is meant to be, on one hand there a lot of references to the original books on the other much of the setting and story is changed so that it isn't a faithful adaptation either. Visually it borrows strongly from other works without developing it's own voice. It's difficult to know in the end what the film was actually meant to be about, it's more of a daydream than a substantial fantasy story. Like a dream in draws a myriad of familiar elements together in a confusing yet occasionally touching way.