Studio Ghibli has gained its prestige through an almost unparalleled consistency. Can you even think of a Ghibli movie that isn’t widely adored? Well, now I can.
Tales from Earthsea currently holds a 41% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Now, of course we all know that Rotten Tomatoes is far from the definitive measure of quality, but research has given me a strong sense that, in general, people were disappointed.
For starters, there was a fraught production history: Tales from Earthsea is directed by Goro Miyazaki. As you may be able to guess from the name, there is a relation with Ghibli’s leading figure Hayao Miyazaki. Goro was his, at the time 39 year old, son – Hayao Miyazaki had wanted to adapt Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel but was caught up in directing duties on Howl’s Moving Castle. Not wanting to halt the project, Goro stepped up to the table to make his first feature, against the protests of his father.
Le Guin herself was disappointed with the final film, and evidently many other viewers were. But watching it with 11 years of distance between me and its multitude of pre-production issues, there’s an infectious charm that radiates through the film. It’s not a Ghibli classic, but it’s a hard one to write off.
The plot is a complex weave of characters tangled in masses of back-story and lore that are passed over during expository hallway conversations. Coming out just a few years after The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, it’s difficult not to compare the two. Ghibli were likely hoping that the appetite for expansive fantasy those films cultivated in the market would guarantee them success.
On a larger level, Tales from Earthsea is about dragons and kingdoms and ancient myths, but at the core of the story is a young prince named Arren who runs away from his palace home and is aided by Sparrowhawk, a wise mage.
Later, a stony faced girl named Theru and the woman who has taken her in – Tenar – are introduced. This pair of faux-parental relationships mirror each other strongly and provide an affecting, fascinating core for the film. These characters, particularly the younger ones, aren’t as richly drawn as some of Ghibli’s other heroes, but they have moments that are deeply expressive. One scene sees Theru singing to herself – or to the nature she feels so connected to – on a mountaintop, while Arren watches on in awed curiosity. It is an extended, beautiful scene that provides respite from what can be a tiresomely derivative plot. Tales from Earthsea is at its best when it abandons its mechanics in favor of pure cinematic expression, and thankfully that’s often the case.
It’s easy to cry “nepotism” and perhaps Goro Miyazaki wasn’t prepared enough to tackle something so epic in scale for his directorial debut. He struggles to find a gripping way into the story at the beginning and fumbles with structure throughout; but, I was blown away with some bursts of extreme skill he displays in moments of the film. For example, in an early scene, just before Arren first meets Sparrowhawk, he is chased by a pack of rabid wolves. The ensuing chase is drawn so intensely that you can almost feel the wind blowing past your ears. In glorious, tactile long takes, the ground flies past his feet; it’s some of the best action directing I’ve seen in a while, animation or not.
It’s this promise that makes it so disappointing that Goro Miyazaki has been able to take on so few projects since. Working on a smaller scale, he could have turned a lot of heads – and there’s certainly still time. Tales from Earthsea is distinctly imperfect, but it’s full of potential and far from terrible. Don’t worry – that Ghibli track record remains intact.
What are your thoughts? Did you enjoy Goro Miyazaki’s Tales from Earthsea?
Edited by: MJ Edwards