The Gigli of Ghibli movies: Goro Miyazaki’s Tales From Earthsea (2006) – Blu-ray review

June 27, 2012 by Simon Kinnear in Retro with 0 Comments

A Studio Ghibli film, directed by man named Miyazaki, and it’s a disaster? In this case, neither fish nor fowl would willingly settle in Earthsea.

Tales From Earthsea 2006 Goro Miyazaki Studio Ghibli

Tales From Earthsea
(Goro Miyazaki, 2006)

Some things are destined not to be.  Japanese anime master Hayao Miyazaki had been longing to adapt Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea novels for decades; son Goro Miyazaki similarly pined to follow in his father’s footsteps.  With inevitable logic, by the time the great Studio Ghibli got the rights to the novels, the son was in a position to step up to the plate and so it came to pass that Hayao didn’t make the film… and Goro shouldn’t have.

Tales From Earthsea is everything other Studio Ghibli films aren’t: crude, charmless and boring.  It’s a doodle of a fantasy film, lacking the visual richness or narrative texture of the studio’s work, and Hayao Miyazaki’s in particular.  Ghibli’s customarily strong world building is all but absent, with an intriguing set-up about failed harvest and dying herds hinting at an epic tale than never comes.  Instead, the film quickly degenerates into a plodding rural road movie occasionally livened up with magic.  Major concepts like people’s True Names – the symbols of their soul, knowledge of which gives wizards power over them – remains vague and under-explained, and I was forced to consult Wikipedia mid-film to figure things out: always a bad sign.

Admittedly, I’ve never read the Earthsea saga, but I know enough people who swear by LeGuin to realise something must have gone terribly wrong.  There’s a case to be made that the delay in adapting Earthsea causes many of the film’s problems.  There’s a sense that parts of LeGuin’s stories had already found their way into Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind, Castle In The Sky and Princess Mononoke, meaning that all Goro had to work with was the husk of the story, its juices long since sucked up.  Factor in the famous similarities between Le Guin’s novels and the Harry Potter series – Ged/Sparrowhawk was the original schoolboy wizard – and the film becomes feels like a third-rate knock-off.

It’s the same problem recent non-hit John Carter had – and yet, for all its flaws, Andrew Stanton’s film had a joie de vivre and a tangible faith in its material that this lacks.  Which, given that Ghibli can knock out this stuff in its sleep, and the studio’s frontman is Japan’s biggest Earthsea fan, points the finger of blame squarely at Miyazaki, Jr.  The director, either out of naivety or truculence, steers clear of the house style, with the tone souring into borderline-sadistic blood-letting.  It might be characteristic for certain wings of anime to show the innards dripping out of hacked-off limbs, but it’s not really what you except from a Miyazaki.  I was critical of Howl’s Moving Castle (the film being released on Blu-ray this week alongside Tales From Earthsea) but at least it is unmistakably, heart-on-sleeve Ghibli.

The film’s desperately slow pace is caused by dull characterisation, with the children intense and introverted instead of charismatic and joyous (one of them is introduced as a patricidal killer!) and the adults afflicted by a serious humour bypass.  The plot is based on the notion that magic should only be used in dire need, and so Sparrowhawk is a monkish, ascetic kind of wizard who prefers ploughing to casting spells. Jeez, how exciting.

Visually, too, Goro courts disaster.  The backgrounds are fine, if rarely as intricate as the lived-in, labour-of-love delights his father consistently achieved.  But the characters are off-puttingly designed, with sour features and overly sharp lines that distract from suspension of disbelief.  Rather than feeling that organic creations of Earthsea, they look like animations – and not particularly Ghibli-esque animations at that.  For want of a better description, they’re more Ralph Bakshi-like in appearance.

Only the film’s villain Lord Cob, drawn and characterised as an androgynous Goth rock-star gone to seed, really works – but then the film’s English dub ruins everything by replacing the creepy feminine hush of original actress Yūko Tanaka with a gravelly-voiced man (Willem Dafoe).  It’s almost as if nobody bothered to properly watch the film – and who can blame them?

Tales From Earthsea is released on Blu-ray by Studio Canal this week, alongside Howl’s Moving Castle.

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