Tales From Earthsea (Goro Miyazaki, 2006)
Japanese Title: Goro Senki
This tale from Earthsea (a fantasy world created by author Ursula Le Guin) starts with a seafaring ship under threat by a violent storm. The darkened skies divide to reveal feuding dragons who masterfully glide over the troubled ship. The film cuts to the capital city where the king is discussing the problems of the land with his ministers. The world seems to be losing its balance, as proved by the appearance of dragons who reside in another plane; the imbalance is the effect of the use of dark magic. The king goes to his chambers and is suddenly stabbed by his son Prince Arren, who steals his magic sword and escapes.
The murder of the king by Arren is of sensational importance, as the director Goro Miyazaki was disallowed by his legendary father, Hayao, from directing films. The younger Miyazaki proved to be insistent in his wishes and helms this adaptation of Le Guin's famous novels. Tales From Earthsea, although a Ghibli production, feels very alien to the animation studio's filmography. In a sense, it smells of subtle rebellion of the younger Miyazaki against his famous patriarch with themes that discuss estrangement between father and son, to the point of overt violence. The film's more pertinent themes are enveloped by this observable conflict, it draws away the interest from Le Guin's original material to the director's subconsciously volunteered personal stakes on his art.
As a stand-alone film, Tales From Earthsea is far from great. It badly needs the assured lightheartedness or the whimsicality of the works of Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata. The material itself is burdened with settled narrative arcs and themes, that it is quite difficult to artistically divert from what is already written and loved by countless of Earthsea fans. It possesses a persistent somber mood that can be likened to dullness or impractical seriousness.
Consistent with the somber quality of the film are the characters: Arren is blank and impenetrable throughout the film, obviously torn between the forces of good and evil; his mentor and travelling companion Haitaka is torn between his mission as an arch-mage and the calling of a simple and mundane life with an ex-witch Tenar; Theru, a mysterious girl adopted by kind-hearted Tenar is also torn between her violent past life and her peaceful life with Tenar. The film lacks a catchy supporting characters (which populates Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata's feature films like Calcifer in Howl's Moving Castle (2004), No-Face in Spirited Away (2001), or Totoro in My Neighbor Totoro (1988)). Instead, Goro Miyazaki settles with the drab personalities as is; mostly insufficiently complemented by the slapstick comedy of the cowardly guard leader.
Visually, the film is stunning. Goro Miyazaki has a gift for details. The metropolis visited by Arren and Haitaku is populated with diverse citizenry --- slaves, dishonest merchants, addicts, and mischievous peddlers. Interestingly, Tales of Earthsea looks more similar to the early works of Isao Takahata than Hayao Miyazaki. An early battle between Arren and a pack of wolves is borrowed from Takahata's pre-Ghibli film The Little Norse Prince (1968), which Miyazaki admits as his most favorite film. The animation here isn't as meticulously crafted as Ghibli's more recent features, but as it is, it is still quite magnificent. The hand-crafted scenery, from the gorgeous vistas, the castles, and the city landscapes, are all exquisite. It mostly reinforces the film's epic scope and unfortunately forces the focus to the flatness of the narrative and the characterization.
Despite its multiple problems, Tales From Earthsea is still a worthwhile picture. Its conflicted roots, Miyazaki's obvious learning curve (he is really not an animator, but a director of the Ghibli Museum, and trained in landscape), and the artistic limits of adaptation, are all ingredients of an interesting and utterly personal film. As mentioned, the film subtly fronts themes of father-son relationships (Arren and his father, Arren with surrogate father Haitaka). The covered yet more pertinent Earthsea themes of balance, the values of life and death, power, and immortality aren't as spelled out as wanted (to author Le Guin's disappointment who admits her books are better, and that Hayao Miyazaki's films are far greater).
Tales From Earthsea isn't the great addition to Ghibli Studio's illustrious filmography. What it is is an interesting start for Goro Miyazaki, who I presume will forever be haunted by his father's grand career. While I think that his decision to make his debut film with an adaptation of a popular novel is unwise, Goro Miyazaki has still provided us with an intriguing film, apparently flawed yet indisputably beautiful.
This post is my contribution to Joe's Movie Corner: Ghiblog-a-thon.