*This review contains some spoilers for certain story elements found early in the film*
In 2006, the impossible happened when Studio Ghibli, creators of so many classic and mystifying animated films, made a bad movie. Granted, you’ll find plenty of worse animated features out there, but for such a movie to come from Studio Ghibli still seems unthinkable. Yet such is the case with Tales from Earthsea which, despite a few aesthetic highlights and a handful of memorable moments, ultimately stumbles with uneven storytelling and incoherent character growth.
It should be noted that Earthsea is not among the films of the legendary Hayao Miyazaki or is mentor Isao Takahata, but was the debut film of Hayao Miyazaki’s son, Goro Miyazaki. It should also be noted that prior to Earthsea, Goro Miyazaki was an architect, and had no prior affiliation with the worlds of filmmaking or animation aside from his famous father. Perhaps Ghibli’s then-president Toshio Suzuki thought the senior Miyazaki’s filmmaking abilities were so great that they would surely pass down to his son, though Hayao Miyazaki himself was infamously against the idea of thrusting his son into the director’s chair of a feature film with no prior experience. It may have been best had Ghibli headed the legendary director’s concerns.
Tales from Earthsea is based on a series of fantasy novels by author Ursula Le Guin, a series which Hayao Miyazaki once attempted to adapt himself. It is perhaps that large task of adapting an entire series of novels into a singular film by the hands of an inexperienced director that ultimately lead to the film’s undoing. There are hints at a bigger world and histories in Tales from Earthsea, but the story it contains feels so small scale its pacing can come off as episodic, a cheap means to drag it out and justify its would-be grand scale.
The story centers around three central figures: Arren, a young prince who has spells of psychopathy, Sparrowhawk, an old wizard who takes Arren as his apprentice, and Therru, a young woman with a scar burned on her face. Additionally, there’s Tenar, a woman who has taken Therru into her home and is an old friend of Sparrowhawk’s; and the film’s villain, Cob, an androgynous sorcerer who becomes one of the more terrifying Ghibli foes.
The problem here is that most of these characters don’t leave much of an impression, or are downright unlikeable. Sparrowhawk is entirely inoffensive, but perhaps the most archetypal character to appear in a Studio Ghibli film (he’s basically a wise wizard who wise wizard’s his way through the movie because wise wizard). Tenar had the potential to be one of the many strong Ghibli heroines, but never gets a chance to show any real uniqueness as a character. Cob gets a bit of a pass, since he’s supposed to be hatable, so he does his job for the narrative (even if he’s one of the less fleshed-out villains in the Ghibli catalogue, despite his creepiness and mildly sexual personality).
Therru is probably the only real sympathetic character, having been abused and abandoned by her birth parents, she’s developed a sensitivity and kindness towards others that makes her more likable than the rest of the cast.
It is Arren who really breaks whatever emotion you might have otherwise been able to invest in the film, however. Within the first five minutes of the movie, this supposed “hero” murders his own father in cold blood, with no reason given other than he was “possessed by fear.” Perhaps if Arren were treated as a villain that happens to be at the center of the film, or a man seeking redemption for the irredeemable, it could work. But the story just expects the audience to sympathize with him despite murdering his kindly father without any shred of reason behind the heinous act. Arren succumbs to a few other psychotic episodes during the film, which make him come off as one of those needlessly evil and angst-y villains you’d find in an action-based television anime, which is as far removed from Ghibli characterization as you can get.
Anyway, to give a brief summary of how this all comes together: Arren flees his kingdom after his inexplicit crime, meets up with Sparrowhawk, who makes Arren his apprentice. And later they meet up with Tenar and Therru, and somehow they all get caught up in Cob’s quest for eternal life.
As I said, there are bits and pieces of a fantasy epic in here, but the overall execution of Tales from Earthsea is so underdeveloped that it misses the mark. Despite its overall blunders, however, there are a few good aspects going for Tales from Earthsea.
Most obviously, the film, like all of Studio Ghibli’s library, is beautifully animated. The character movements and attention to detail are astounding, as are the stunning backgrounds. The character designs are unfortunately the least inspired of any Ghibli movie (Arren essentially resembles Ashitaka, the hero of Princess Mononoke, but without the complexity and range of emotion), but the technical aspects of the animation are as great as ever. Tales from Earthsea also boasts a pretty good musical score that sometimes sounds as epic as the film itself should have been.
I also have to admit that the film’s final act, where the focus shifts more onto Therru, is actually well done for the most part. The final confrontation she and Arren have with Cob, while not one of the more original Ghibli endings, does what it needs to with a confidence that you wish could have been present in the journey that got us to that point.
Tales from Earthsea might be worth a look then, if even just to complete the Ghibli library of films. But it should say something about it that when Disney finally released the film stateside in 2010, they didn’t give it the same loving treatment they gave to the other Studio Ghibli films. Spirited Away, Ponyo, The Wind Rises, Arietty, even Howl’s Moving Castle, were lavishly touted by Disney upon their worldwide distribution, even with their limited releases. By contrast, Tales from Earthsea felt like it was released out of contractual obligation. Nothing more.
Studio Ghibli has provided audiences with many of the world’s finest animated features, which often boast such wondrous imagination they make us feel that anything is possible. The fact that Studio Ghibli managed to create a movie as muddled and uneven as Tales from Earthsea is proof that, indeed, anything is.