Studio Ghibli’s Tales from Earthsea has everything going for it. The film has tremendously lush scenery, a gorgeous sense of place and atmosphere, compelling characters with complex backstories, and a philosophical center that resonates and fascinates.
So why is the movie a bit of a failure? Why did I find myself constantly pulling out my tablet to discover something more interesting than to look at this latest Disney Blu-ray release of a Ghibli production?
Part of it may come from the fact that Earthsea was directed by Hayao Miyazaki’s son Goro, delivering a dream project that had been conceived and investigated by his father but ultimately abandoned. This may have turned out to be simply too complex a tale to be told by a young filmmaker, or it may be that a great movie based on Ursula K. LeGuin’s amazing Earthsea stories was just not something that could be created.
Whatever the reasons, this movie lacks the pop, resonance and lovely brilliance of many Ghibli films.
The fault doesn’t lie with the depth of the world presented here. The Ghibli team do a terrific job of creating a complex setting, with its own rules and rituals, well delivered from LeGuin’s smart template. In fact, the feeling of setting is extremely impressive. There are a number of scenes set in a medieval style port city, and the designs are breathtakingly interesting – Ionic columns atop partially destroyed structures, buildings with peeling paint and broken bricks, an impression that the city is a busy, bustling place full of drug abusers, merchants, businesspeople, slavers and ordinary citizens all going about their daily business.
It’s a scene that’s typical of the best work by the elder Miyazaki, in which viewers are deeply immersed into worlds that he creates, and it’s powerful storytelling. As well, the scenes set on a farm are beautiful in their attention to detail and feeling of space.
If Sparrowhawk and Tenar are the parents, Arren and Therru are the children, or next generation. Arren is a 17-year-old capable of terrible violence. Earthsea opens with an unspeakable act and spends much of the rest of its running time trying to help Arren overcome the rage that lives inside him, helped with the pure and needed love of the peaceful Therru. When Arren finally confronts the evil Cob, it vindicates his arc and helps the story reach a nice sense of closure.
The pace is slow and stately, with long and stable shots and moments for swelling music and dwelled-upon moments, but those moments don’t quite lead to anything significant. They build to a climax or to a depth that I longed to find but didn’t. There are allusions to a larger world throughout the movie, to a “curse on the land” and a blight brought on by evil, but we get nothing more than allusions to that, and – hard as it is to say about a movie that contains an impressive amount of depth – actually needs more time spent on the background stories to make it work well.
We never get any motivations as to why Arren commits his heinous act; we never get a good explanation for the Shadows that are a key part of the ending; we never get a good explanation of the importance of a “true name”. In the end, Earthsea is a bit of a donut: delicious on the outside but with a hole at its center.
There’s a lot to recommend in Tales from Earthsea, but the younger Miyazaki does not have his father’s touch for genius in this film.