When Miyazaki Goro’s anticipated debut movie hit the screens in 2006, much of the reception was lukewarm, and even a bit unflattering. Let me tell you this: Unless all you care about is a gripping plotline, don’t take those criticisms seriously. Many of the reviewers expected Goro’s film to be yet another Ghibli swashbuckler filled with adventure, intrigue, and fun. Young Miyazaki was unable to escape his father’s shadow (not unlike his film’s protagonist), and his ambitious, very different, work ended up the undeserved target of many preconceived notions. Tales from Earthsea is a far cry from the typical family-friendly flight of whimsy that one would probably expect, but while considered a Miyazaki “disappointment,” it remains a movie that can stand quite well on its own, thank you very much.
Tales from Earthsea is not a movie for kids. Nor is it a movie tailored for those simply “in for a good ride.” It is an unpretentious work with an unpretentious story, but a lot is said. Unlike Miyazaki Hayao, Goro’s narrative is driven more by mood and character than actual plot, though father and son align in their ability to convey something to their audience. Prince Arren, a troubled teenager and runaway, finds himself unwittingly caught in an evil scheme that has been throwing the world of Earthsea out of sync. In the midst of such troubles, he gains friends, traverses the countryside, hides from slave traders, and delves into the meanings of life and death. It is by no means an epic adventure, but is instead a series of thoughtful portraits in which Arren comes to learn about himself and the way he views the circumstances around him. Miyazaki Goro has something to say through this movie, something that transcends past commercial artifices into an important lesson on the value of life.
Compared to the charms of other Ghibli films, Earthsea promises a very different kind of magic. The fantasy surrounding the land of Earthsea is presented in a way not dissimilar to Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter: Its tone is much airier than those of the elder Miyazaki, the landscapes are distinctly un-Japanese, and all in all, there is just something sweeping about its whole image. It becomes a memorable fantasy not through heroics and fighting dragons, but through its beautiful tone colors. Keep in mind that this is NOT what every anime fan is looking for.
This isn’t to say that the story is without gaps and flaws. As a matter of fact, there exist a few moments where motives and actions do not connect adequately, leaving the overarching story less convincing than it could have been. Some plot occurrences are unneeded, while others are left unexplained. Nevertheless, its theme on the dynamics between life and death hits hard. The climax, while lacking a sense of urgency, is ethereal and grandiose, and then cascades into a quiet, satisfying conclusion.
One can easily detect the classic “Ghibli style” in Miyazaki Goro. Like its story, the animation and backgrounds are unpretentious, uncluttered works of art that serve their purposes well and add to the fresh, “open” feel of the film. What drew me in the most were its vast landscapes. With such breezy, sun-tinted oceans, desert seas, broad mountain ranges, and windblown grass fields, I felt a strong desire to step through my computer screen and actually experience the sensations that the scenes so strongly elicited. The characters are drawn in an uncomplicated manner and yet exhibit a cleaner, more detailed polish than earlier Miyazaki counterparts.
Let me just say that the music is absolutely, unequivocally beautiful. Its exotic harmonies and sweeping symphonic elements truly bring the world of Earthsea to life. Some main themes were used repetitively, yet they were so exquisite and full of imagery that I hardly minded. I particularly liked the more folksong-like piece that makes a poetic appearance in the second half, sung by Therru, the heroine.
The voice acting is well done. Above all, I love the voice for Cob, whose low, musical murmurs capture his mystique and lend to an odd kind of hypnotism that is fascinating to hear. This quality of voice heightens his terrifying potential for evil. The others’ voices, while performed persuasively, are generally unremarkable in timbre.
What the film might miss in plot it almost completely makes up for in the multifaceted characterization of its protagonist, Prince Arren. The boy’s realizations of life, death, and himself largely constitute the story as a whole; throughout his journey of guilt, doubt, and fear, he will be able to strike a deeply familiar chord with many viewers. Seemingly crushed by the irrevocability of dying one day, Arren copes with the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life. His development throughout the film will make it easy for viewers struggling with similar problems to reflect and journey with him. The impact of such a dynamic evolution of character cannot be denied.
Many of the other characters initially appear to fit into one-dimensional frames. Some of them remain so, while others grow into themselves. Sparrowhawk stays the stereotypical wise wizard, Tenar the supportive and strong female adult ally. However, Therru, a girl Arren rescues from the slave traders, blooms into a best friend and a vital part of Arren’s self-realizations. Cob, who is maliciously throwing Earthsea out of balance, holds vulnerabilities of his own that make his greed understandable. The only disappointing character is the annoying, broad-faced slave trader lackey who repeatedly fails in his attempts to apprehend Arren. His presence is merely a bad aftertaste that pops up over and over again as a device to tend to the rather forced undercurrent of suspense throughout the first half.
As an important introduction to this review, I have not read the Earthsea novels; in addition, I generally am not impressed with the majority of Studio Ghibli titles. Spirited Away is a classic in its own right, and I did also enjoy Princess Mononoke and Kiki's Delivery Service; most of the other titles, however, did nothing for me.
These points are perhaps important as the two major complaints I keep reading about in relation to Gedo Senki are not related to the actual plot, character development, or animation; rather, the complaints are either "It doesn't feel like a Ghibli film" or "It's nothing like the book." Thankfully, neither of these concerns affects or matters to me.
Gedo Senki takes place in a lush and remarkably barren world flanked by oceans and surrounded by open fields and clear skies. While the countryside is nothing to scream about (and is very simplistically animated, I might add), the vibrant port town is bustling with life. Amidst the action are the wise mage Sparrowhawk and his traveling companion, Arren. Unlike what other synopses would suggest, Gedo Senki is not an action-packed adventure filled with swords and sorcery. Rather, it is a quiet and intelligent tale with deep character development that is based upon a single theme: the fear of dying.
While I found Gedo Senki's quiet pace and introspective feel to be marvelous, there's something to be said about the deceptiveness of the plot's setup. The first ten minutes of the film lead you to believe that what you'll be viewing is an epic tale of grandeur and scope which determines the fate of the world as we know it - but that's just not the case. I believe that this, combined with the movie's deviation from the books, is the cause of much criticism. However, there is a solution: go into the film understanding that the first ten minutes are very different than the rest, and you won't be disappointed. The pacing and flow is sometimes a bit off as well, but like Princess Arete, Gedo Senki still manages to portray its story in an intelligent, thoughtful, and overall meaningful manner.
The real meat of the story involves watching Arren explore who he is and who he is to become, with the help of his friends and enemies alike. Though there is a centralized "plot" related to good and evil, it isn't as important as the characters' inner development. Thus, again, I think having correct expectations is key if you are to enjoy Gedo Senki as much as I did.
The only other item worth mentioning is the ending, which some have described as one of the worst endings of all time; I can't disagree more. Given that the anime itself is focused on a boy learning to accept who he is and how to take responsibility for his life, I thought the end couldn't be more appropriate.
Gedo Senki's animation has been chastised as seeming too simple and "bad" for a Ghibli film - I can't help but disagree. While it's true that Gedo Senki does not retain the exceptional visual style of older titles such as Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle, it holds its own with a more traditional look. Character designs are more basic and are akin to simplistic anime such as Nausicaa and King of Bandit Jing. Backgrounds are still absolutely gorgeous and detailed, bringing Gedo Senki's fantasy world to life with style. Moss-covered bricks adorn Celtic fountains, sweeping fields border countryside residences, and a dark and ominous castle looms in the distance. There are many other examples of the superb visual style, but you'll just have to watch to find out.
Gedo Senki's soundtrack is nothing less than flawless. With a distinct Arabian feel, the sweeping melodies that accompany each scene took my breath away. At times, the tone is jovial and uplifting (such as in marketplace scenes) while at others, the songs take a more epic tone akin to something like Lord of the Rings or Braveheart. Kubiki strongly reminds me of the Stargate movie, and still gives me chills when I listen to it. Tabiji is my other favorite track on the OST (which, I might add, I purchased immediately and can't seem to stop listening to).
Gedo Senki is also unique in that all of the voice actors were chosen PERFECTLY. An old man with 3 minutes of total on-screen time sounds frail, tired, and definitely aging. Arren sounds like his age: 17; he doesn't have a female seiyuu, nor a deep-throated voice of someone twice his age. Even Cob's androgynous and sexy lilt is perfect, giving him a disarming demeanor and appearance.
As someone who struggles herself with the concept of death and dying, I could completely identify with Arren's grief and tendency to wonder if fighting for life is truly something worth doing. His character undergoes a remarkable transformation from one who places no value on his life, to one who cherishes each moment and wants to protect the ones he loves.
Arren's new friend Theru undergoes the second most poignant transformation. Scarred as a child by her abusive parents, Theru lives with Sparrowhawk's companion, Tenar. Theru does not care for Arren's company to begin with due to a conflict of morals, and is generally afraid of anyone new and unknown. Throughout the course of the film, Theru, like Arren, gains a greater sense of caring and self worth.
Secondary characters include the stoic and wise Sparrowhawk whose character is akin to Gandalf of Lord of the Rings, Theru's strong and steadfast caretaker Tenar, and the evil and sadistic Cob. Each plays an important part in the story. Though impossible to discuss without spoiling, I'll simply say that I was even able to identify and empathize with the villain of the story, once the ending credits neared. Too often a villain is simply an evil person with a need for power, but not so with Gedo Senki. Rather, Gedo Senki's villain has a much more human motive that viewers can empathize with.
Prince Arren is the cutest anime boy I have EVER seen. Holy cow.
There are a couple of lines where Aoi Teshima's voice is just breathtaking.
The story and movie itself are only so-so at best.
Studio Ghibli became the colossus it is thanks to the directing and love of its major founder, Hayao Miyazaki. Most of his works are adored by most anime fans and he is considered to be the best director of anime movies. But sadly nothing can last forever and he is getting too old to create works with as much passion as the one he had three decades ago. Thus Ghibli tries to pass the torch to the new generation, and in this particular case, Hayao’s own son Gorou. This doesn’t mean all of his talent could be magically inherited to the next generation and that Gorou could pick up the duty with the same style or passion. In fact his first attempt is quite the unimpressive one. It feels dull and hardly shares the excitement of his father’s earlier works.
The story is based on Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels. I haven’t read them but I have seen the live action movie adaptation of the first novel and know all the basics. And here lies the first major problem of the movie; the fact that it is based on a mix of all the novels, which took their time to establish the terminology to the reader. The movie focuses mostly on showing the plot and not on explaining the internal logic of the Earthsea setting, thus anyone who is not aware of all that will be completely confused. Prior knowledge of the world in the books is necessary in order to understand how magic and control of the elements work. I am not a fan of expotalk but making a 2 hour story out of a world with a unique form of magic is kind of a bad move. Heck, even the straightforward way Middle Earth was running needed a trilogy to properly explain everything. Thus you need to read the books if you want to fully comprehend the technicals of Earthsea.
The second problem is that even if you do read the books, the movie will still feel like a loose and dried up version of a world where the balance between yourself and nature is crucial. A great part of the original story is focusing on internal monologues or long narration of the psychology of its characters, and how that in return mirrors the state of the world they are living in. If they have major issues, the land around them loses its balance and havoc spreads. All that can’t be properly translated from paper to screen, since you “see” them acting and not “hear” them thinking. And no, this is not some half-assed shounen where the characters can’t shut up and just mention the slightest thing they do to you. Thus the problem now is that you don’t understand the motivations or the mentality of the characters. If you see someone suddenly getting angry, chances are you won’t understand the reason because something weird just crossed his mind, stated in detail in the original text but completely invisible on screen.
The third problem is the storyboard. It is way too simple, even for an otherwise family movie. Very few things happen in each scene and thus lack the rich context of earlier Ghibli films. Many events could very easily be left out without a problem or could have been shown in a far more captivating way. Heck, they could have combined most action scenes to last half as much, just for the sake of being twice as interesting. The battles are boring, the talking is almost emotionless, and the actions each character does are simple and stretched to last for several minutes. This goes back to an earlier problem, where you have a complicating setting full of events that needs to show and explain lots of stuff, yet the director only chooses to state them in a most basic and dried up way. Earthsea is NOT family-oriented material; you can’t just sit with the kids to see humorous action and adventure. There is mostly world-building and psychology than action; both of which are absent on-screen and thus you get this soup of a plot. And to heck with that, how does the wizard plan to save the world by wasting days in plowing a field? Or how will the prince make his own kingdom by running away from the kindom he would inherit one day? Nothing makes sense!
It is the same problem Ghibli’s earlier work Howl's Moving Castle had. Way too many things happen in way too little time for the average viewer to grasp and cherish, and thus they get nothing specific to remember about. I understand how they are trying to make it more complicating than just another run-of-the-mil children’s adventure but such things simply take time to be properly presented and the target audience doesn’t care about all that to the most part. If you ask me, both Howl and Earthsea (and their following Borrower Arrietty) should be SERIES and not a teaser movie that scratches only the surface of the whole. They are not stories that can be zipped down to a few hours like in the case of Nausicaa or Princess Mononoke.
The fourth problem is the plausibility of the storyboard. Apart from being simple and incomprehensible, it is also full of convenience. It is ok to have a couple of scenes in such movies but if it happens all the time it tends to get annoying fast. Arren keeps bumping on the proper people, in the proper moment, all the time. If there are lotteries in Earthsea, he could have won them all with all that luck of his. And the wizard of the story can simply appear and disappear every time the script calls for it, and it is not because he can teleport or something. Not to mention the silent girl who, oh, so happens to bump on Arren in a one in a billion chance a few days later he saves her from being raped… RAPED? Did I just say something that shouldn’t be part of a family movie? Why the hell are they promoting child rape and child slavery in a movie for kids? See what I meant when I said Earthsea is NOT family-oriented material? This is going to scare children and parents away.
The production values are great as usual but definitely lack the mind-blowing visuals of earlier films. Earthsea “looks” rather generic for a fantasy medieval setting and it is its metaphysical unseen aspect that makes it great. Nothing close to Nausicaa or Princess Mononoke and their extremely full in detail sceneries and weird creatures. Furthermore they overdid it with the robes and the cloaks. Everybody wears these monochromatic blunt uniforms most of the time that it feels like they were trying to save money in animation by drawing a few simple triangles with a head on top that slide instead of a full body that walks. It again takes out a lot from what the eye could be kept busy and you are again left to realize how basic and boring it feels.
In a rather similar way soundtrack and voice acting are fine for what the movie is all about bout definitely lack passion. Since the world is out of balance most people are very gloomy and sad, so they feel too negative and distant for you to care. Plus since their motivations are blurry and you don’t understand how they think or act, you simply lack a reason to like them. Combined with the simplistic storyboard, you feel like half the time you are just hearing them talk in a cryptic but otherwise emotionless way, and there is little to no BGM to make it sound fancy. So I felt like most of the dialogue was short sentences full of amateurish attempts at building tension (Are you… could it be… it can’t be… perhaps… of course).
And now for some excused scorings.
ART SECTION: 7/10
General Artwork 2/2 (well-made)
Character Figures 1/2 (generic)
Backgrounds 2/2 (very detailed)
Animation 1/2 (too many robes)
Visual Effects 1/2 (basic)
SOUND SECTION: 7/10
Voice Acting 2/3 (dull but fitting with the feeling of the series)
Music Themes 3/4 (not great but fitting with the feeling of the series)
Sound Effects 2/3 (ok I guess)
STORY SECTION: 5/10
Premise 2/2 (interesting)
Pacing 1/2 (dull)
Complexity 1/2 (not much)
Plausibility 0/2 (vague)
Conclusion 1/2 (cheesy)
CHARACTER SECTION: 6/10
Presence 1/2 (generic)
Personality 2/2 (rather cheesy but well founded)
Backdrop 1/2 (generic and simplistic but it’s there)
Development 1/2 (generic but it’s there)
Catharsis 1/2 (generic but it’s there)
VALUE SECTION: 2/10
Historical Value 1/3 (none, unless you count the original books’ fame)
Rewatchability 0/3 (no way)
Memorability 1/4 (the dragons were cool)
ENJOYMENT SECTION: 3/10
So did I liked it? No, but it is not the source material I blame for that. Instead of making a 12 episode series full of magic and psychological emersion aimed at adults they made a dull movie aimed at kids. Sorry Gorou, you need to get your facts straight if you want us to like you. Your first attempt was a big mess.
An animated Studio Ghibli film by Miyazaki featuring magic and dragons and wizards! Can't go wrong, right?
Well... first let's clarify that it's not Hayao, but his son Goro Miyazaki in the directorial seat. Second, it's a Studio Ghibli film, so the animation will be gorgeous; that's a given. Third, I'll note that I have never read the series on which the film was based, so I have no opinions whatsoever about the film's supposed deviation therefrom.
My conclusion? Tales from Earthsea is a beautifully drawn, breathtakingly rendered, but otherwise terrible film. I initially stopped watching because I found it unbearable. I then forced myself to finish after reading some positive reviews to see if the film's ending redeemed it; it did not.
The problem starts with a terrible story. I don't know what the books are like, but the film lacked any sense of narrative focus or cohesion, not to mention momentum. It goes something like this (SPOILERS at the end, so beware):
The movie begins with unexplained events that indicate that the world is out of balance. Then, Prince Arren commits an unspeakable, unexplained act of violence for no apparent reason and meets up with the wise wizard Sparrowhawk who, for some reason that escapes me, decides he wants to mentor this random stranger he met in the desert. The duo travel to a town for some reason that escapes me. The town has evil slavers that work for an evil wizard named Cob because, for some reason that escapes me, this is all necessary to the story. Prince Arren saves a girl with a scar from the slavers, but ends up getting captured himself. Sparrowhawk saves him, and the whole incident contributes little, if anything, to the story, except to show that (1) slavers are evil; (2) Sparrowhawk can do magic; (3) Sparrowhawk can and will rescue Arren.
Arren and Sparrowhawk then go to a woman named Tenar's house for no other apparent reason than to embark on a spirit-heartening farming trip. There, they find that ploughing the fields, playing with oxen, and getting in touch with God's green earth rights all that is bad with the world. Sparrowhawk leaves for a day and shit turns hairy when the slavers come and kidnap Tenar on Cob's behalf. Arren wanders off to run from his as yet unexplained demons and gets captured by evil wizard Cob. Cob, the evil looking drag queen, offers Arren a mysterious black-looking drink and claims in a creepy voice that it is no poison; for some as yet unexplained reason, Arren drinks it and then suddenly begins to mistrust Sparrowhawk, the man that saved his ass multiple times and has shown no signs of Saruman and only signs of Gandalf. In the meantime, Scarfaced girl wrestles free and runs to warn Sparrowhawk.
Sparrowhawk goes to Cob's castle to confront Tenar's kidnapper. His magic is useless for some poorly and hastily explained reason. Cob the Drag Queen sics Arren on Sparrowhawk, because he has learned Arren's "true name" and can thus control him, for some unexplained reason. Sparrowhawk is captured and taken to await execution. Meanwhile, Scarfaced girl follows an apparition of Arren--later revealed to be the "light" of Arren (please don't ask me what that means)--to Cob's castle, where she finds a conveniently opened side door and sneaks in.
Scarfaced girl then confronts Arren and asks him why he is acting so fucked up. He whines that no one should bother to save life if it will all just end in death. Oh, woe is Arren! What darkness lies yonder! Scarfaced girl makes what I'm sure was meant to be a heartfelt, uplifting speech about how fearing death means you fear life, and how it's all just one circle of life, mumbo jumbo, life-death yadda yadda. She utters Arren's true name and, voila, he breaks free of Cob's evil spell and values life and is now able to unsheath a magic sword for an as yet unexplained reason.
Arren now kicks some ass with magic sword, saving Sparrowhawk and Tenar from execution by jumping off a high building. Cob turns into some old creepy Voldemort-like thing--he's been trying to cheat death. Arren tries to stop Cob, but Cob chokes Scarfaced girl to death. Except that for some unexplained reason, SHE IS ACTUALLY A DRAGON and burns Cob's sorry drag-queened ass. Arren says, cool, now I have to go answer for the crime of patricide/regicide back in my hometown, but let's hug and hang some time, aiite? Dragon Scarfaced Girl says, yeah, thas coo'.
Yeah. That's the story, or the essence of it anyway. What the eff? Maybe some of these important details were explained, and I just missed them. But maybe I was too busy falling asleep or trying to keep my mind from wandering as one illogical, nonsensical event slooooowly tumbled into the next.
The character design in this film was very simple--some might say too simple. Prince Arren was a rehashed and far inferior version of Ashitaka from Princess Mononoke, only Ashitaka's reindeer-mount and cloak were gifted to a different character, Sparrowhawk (aka Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, only less high on hobbitleaf). Scarfaced Girl was San from Princess Mononoke with facial scarring, longer hair, dingier clothes, and 10x less spunk and beauty. The characters barely had three different facial expressions throughout the film. But really, the character designs didn't bother me so much.
The landscapes and cityscapes were breathtakingly beautiful, and I found my eyes fixated on the backgrounds rather than the characters. It's good to know Studio Ghibli still knows how to make one helluvan awesome looking film.
I have no complaints about the sound. The soundtrack was decent (and somewhat cheesy, but I'm okay with that), but mostly forgettable. I watched the dubbed version on Netflix and enjoyed Willem Defoe's delicious take as Cob, especially when accompanied with Cob's drag queen look. The other voice acting was fine. No complaints.
The characters in Earthsea had some potential, but the story did them few favors. So much more could have been done with these characters.
In Arren, we had a prince with a sordid past and a tangle of dark emotions and impulses--the makings of a fascinating character. He needed a coherent coming-of-age and redemption story, or else some clever variation from the traditional fantasy tropes. Instead, we got a mess of confusing dreams with lots of oozy black liquid.
In Scarfaced girl, we had a fierce, passionate foil to Arren that needed to come out of her shell. She does so literally and explodes into unexplained dragon-form, but her more figurative emergence is barely explored.
In Sparrowhawk, we had a wise mentor-figure who could help Arren grow. Except that he didn't really help Arren grow; he just saved him a few times and let him tag along and did some farming with him. And while Sparrowhawk's bout of powerlessness at Cob's castle was necessary for Arren to show what he could do, it was manufactured out of cheap, nonsensical plot devices. Come to think of it, aside from being "the archmage" who wanders around (doing what? I'm not sure), Sparrowhawk is pretty bland as a character.
And in Tenar, we had a warm motherly figure who had no real purpose in the story. Tenar needed to be a character in her own right, as opposed to the bland accompanying mother figure that she was. She needed a better fleshed out backstory, or something to define who she was as a person.
Cob was an acceptable villain, but fairly conventional and uninteresting. He was the drag queen version of Voldemort, except that he was capable of oozing. His goons, including the ugly head slaver, were far worse: totally one-dimensional and, unsurprisingly, evil.
Overall, I was sorely disappointed with Tales from Earthsea. I really, really wanted to like it and was excited to see that it had appeared on Netflix. But I found the lack of coherent narrative to be fatal to an otherwise beautiful, contemplative film. There were characters that I wanted to like, but couldn't, because they were given nothing interesting to do. Sorry, Goro, but Earthsea was a fail for me.