Being a huge fan of Ursula Le Guin’s original novels, I was really looking forward to seeing how Studio Ghibli brought her world of Earthsea to the screen. In an unusual situation regarding licence rights, the DVD is actually released here in the UK before the US, which meant my wait wasn’t as long as I anticipated. I’d been hearing mixed impressions of the movie though, largely fuelled by the rumours surrounding the relationship between Ghibli veteran Hayao Miyazaki and his son Goro; comparisons with Miyazaki Sr. are inevitable I suppose because Goro was the one who was controversially given the job of directing the film.
Visually, this is a Ghibli movie through and through with the breathtaking watercolour backgrounds, attention to the small details and epic, sweeping scope; the character designs are of the same tradition, which is comforting if you’re a long-standing fan of the studio and a minor disappointment if you aren’t because many do fit into the familiar archetypes. Tamiya Terashima’s musical score is an impressive and well-suited choice for a soundtrack though: Therru’s Song, performed by her seiyuu Aoi Teshima, is especially beautiful and memorable. So too are the relaxing rural scenes, and the colourful bustle of Hort Town is effectively captured.
Since various elements of the Earthsea series have provided inspiration for the elder Miyazaki’s movies, the themes and ideas in this particular film are perfectly in keeping with what we’ve seen from the studio over the years. The awareness of the balance between humans and the natural world is shown well at the beginning of the film, although this is sadly sidelined later on. The film wisely chooses not to retell the series of novels in their entirety however: it focuses mostly on the third book The Farthest Shore and including parts of the fourth, Tehanu. Tenar’s rescue from the tombs of Atuan at the hands of Sparrowhawk (which made up the entirety of the second novel) is alluded to but not portrayed so the movie is mostly concerned with Prince Arren and Sparrowhawk’s confrontation with rival wizard Cob. Some fellow fans of the novels may have an issue with the changes made, but I personally believe a looser adaptation rather than a scene-for-scene retelling is a respectable alternative approach – for sure, I would have liked to have seen more of the books’ essence retained but it does a decent job of bringing the characters such as Sparrowhawk, Tenar, Therru and Arren to life.
Although Miyazaki Jr. is a talented artist and has made a good job of managing the Ghibli Museum, this was his first experience in film making; while this dubious fact isn’t particularly obvious here it is nevertheless evident. In an interview that is included in the DVD extras producer Toshio Suzuki explains the choice of director using a quote from the elder Miyazaki’s movie Porco Rosso: “inspiration is more important than experience.” While I’m inclined to agree, experience is still beneficial in a high-profile and ambitious project such as this; an opinion borne out by the patchy pacing and less self-assured style on show here. Of course, every director brings a certain measure of individuality to the production so it should be expected that this is somewhat different: it’s darker and more serious than many Ghibli films for instance, but is also a little plodding in places. When a movie is as visually spectacular as this, a slow plot isn’t much of a problem but this and one or two surprisingly violent scenes make it less appealing to very young viewers.
Other details, such as Arren killing his father, the associated lack of background regarding his inner conflict and the deus ex machina appearance of the dragon (the latter is part of the original story, so I can’t be too critical there) are a little jarring and could have been explained a little better given the relaxed pace of the events that unfold; the more general aspects help compensate for the minor details but ultimately this is not the best addition to the Ghibli canon. It is however an enjoyable and artistically impressive one, which didn’t really deserve two damning Bunshun Raspberry Awards.
If you are able to look past the controversy surrounding the internal disagreements during the production and alterations to the original story, Tales from Earthsea is a flawed but above-average fantasy feature that is worth watching whether or not you’re familiar with Le Guin’s original novels. The proficiency of the studio and inexperience of its director are evident in the visuals and narrative respectively but while it’s far from perfect it is nevertheless enjoyable. if you get even the slightest amount of enjoyment from this film, I’d still strongly recommend the novels that inspired it.