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Anime News Network
Hayao Miyazaki first wrote author Ursula K. Le Guin about adapting her book into a film. LeGuin at the time was unfamiliar with Miyazaki's work, and associated animation to be similar to Disney animation, and turned the offer down. After she saw My Neighbor Totoro (1988), she loved it, and decided to allow the movie to be made. See more »
Films experiencing production hell are rarely as good as they might have been, no matter how good the director is (c.f. Gangs of New York and AI) and this one is no exception.
Taken on its own terms, Tales of Earthsea is a competent, if not breathtaking, start for Miyazaki junior, and bears comparison to the lesser Gibli canon without scaling the heights of its major work. It is unfair to compare it to My Cousin Totoro, Spirited Away or Graveyard of the Fireflies; but it is also a shame for the fans of Earthsea. They didn't get a top director at the top of his game.
The principal problem with the film is that it doesn't seem to know what to do with the books it is based on. Are they source material to be pillaged? Are they stories to be adapted? Are they concepts to be explored? In the end Miyazaki opts for a mix: the narrative structure is broadly based on the third novel (The Farthest Shore), with a significant sub-plots from both the first (The Wizard of Earthsea) and the fourth (Tehanu). Into the mix he throws some recognisable manga/anime formulae (the arch-enemy; the ronin henchmen; the violence) which cut across the major themes explored by the novels and alluded to by the film.
If this all sounds like a disaster, it isn't exactly. The plot functions: evil wizard, through pride, upsets the balance of Earthsea forcing archmage, Sparrowhawk, in the company of a young prince, to do battle to restore the balance, destroy the evil and face down their own demons. Had Miyazaki been more ruthless all would probably have been well for anime fans anyway. But there are too many blind alleys, lose ends and needless distractions all nods to the books - which make the first half of the film in particular feel like a second rate brass band meandering painfully around a Brassed Off version of Adagio for Strings. The narcotic Hazia, for example, which dominates the beginning of the third story, is introduced early in the film and then simply abandoned. Later, Tenar's back-story fades into nothingness leaving the audience with a forcible impression of a producer impatiently looking at his watch. The whole effect is not homage, but distraction and a film that it is at least 40minutes longer than it needed to be.
Ursula LeGuin, who wrote the Earthsea novels, had suggested to (Hayao) Miyazaki that he create new story for Ged, uncluttered by her previous stories, set in the many years between the first two books. This would have made for a less ponderous film.
Regarding the technical side of animation; it appears the younger Miyazaki was aiming for the dreamlike quality of animation so characteristic of his father's work. Again, he has some partial success in this regard, although it is undeniably more clunky than other Gibli titles. But a lot can be forgiven for his reliance on hand-drawn animation, and there are some moments of real beauty windblown grasses, rocks on the seashore and chill sunsets. This, along with some strong characters and a much tighter second half, make Tales from Earthsea watchable film, if a slightly underwhelming one. But better than Disney. 6/10
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