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.