Eye For Film >> Movies >> Tales From Earthsea (2006) Film Review
Like the storm-tossed ship with which it opens, Tales From Earthsea has had to face some rather rough waters since its launch. Critics the world over - including two on this site - have allowed it to be overwhelmed by comparisons both to the novels that inspired it, and to the works of its director's celebrated father, Hayao Miyazaki. Taken on its own terms, however, Tales From Earthsea is a seaworthy effort, both as an impressive debut from someone who has never previously worked in animation, and as a fine (if somewhat bewildering) piece of synoptic adaptation.
Comprising a trilogy of novels (The Wizard Of Earthsea, The Tombs Of Atuan, The Farthest Shore) and numerous related short stories, Ursula K Le Guin's Earthsea series takes its place alongside JRR Tolkien's stories of Middle Earth and CS Lewis' Narnia chronicles as one of the most cherished fantasy myths of the 20th century. Miyazaki Senior has long been a devotee of Le Guin, and claims to have copies of her books permanently at his bedside. His Nausicaa: Valley Of The Winds (1984) was made as a result of his failure to secure the rights to adapt her works, and he is on record as stating that all his subsequent films are thoroughly imbued with the ideology found in her writings. The worlds of Le Guin and Ghibli, it seems, have long been intimately connected.
After viewing Howl's Moving Castle (2004), Le Guin came to the conclusion that Hayao Miyazaki was the right man after all to direct an animated version of her fantasy. Hayao, however, felt that he was now too old to take on such a task, and sought her permission for someone younger from his studio to helm the feature. It was only when Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki settled on Hayao's untested son Goro for the job that Hayao's enthusiasm waned, and he withdrew from the project entirely (even breaking off communications with Goro). Invidious comparisons between the work of father and son had now become inevitable - so much so that Goro chose bravely to encode such Oedipal conflict in the very fabric of the film, introducing his hero Arren as an inexperienced young prince compelled by forces he does not himself comprehend to murder his own father.
Thereafter, Arren flees the kingdom of Enlad and his own dark self, only to find himself torn by two very different substitute fathers, the modest Archmage Sparrowhawk and the immortality-seeking Lord Cob. The struggle between these two men, and Arren's own inner conflict, are both symptom and cure for a world plagued by ills - a world whose balance will eventually be restored as surely as long, dark night is followed by sunrise.
Le Guin fanatics have lined up to deride Goro and his co-writer Keiko Niwa for the liberties taken with their beloved texts - but, in truth, both the film's generalising title, and its claim in the closing credits to have been inspired by 'the Earthsea series' (as well as by a story of his father's, 'Shuna's Journey'), seem an open acknowledgement that Goro's allegiances are to the spirit rather than to the letter of Le Guin's oeuvre. This is no literal adaptation, no overfaithful, overlong epic like Peter Jackson's Lord Of The Rings trilogy, but instead a feature-length cross-section of Earthsea. Arren's adventures with Sparrowhawk are drawn largely (if not slavishly) from The Farthest Shore, but Arren's nightmarish encounters with his own shadow are closer to Sparrowhawk's experiences in The Wizard Of Earthsea, and Lord Cob's dungeons are said explicitly to be "like the Tombs Of Atuan".
Goro's Earthsea, you see, is a composite rather than a copy, and the better for it. If you want the 'real' Earthsea, read the books - but if you want a dragon's eye view of Le Guin's universe, from the luminous riches of Enlad to the worldly decadence of Hort Town, from tempestuous sea to windswept countryside, from cottage to castle, all rendered in the Ghibli house style with an exquisite attention to detail, and presented in a digestible package coming in at under two hours, then Tales From Earthsea is a dream come true. And in the true spirit of Studio Ghibli's finest works, Tales From Earthsea offers an allegorical critique of our own consumerist society (a world out of balance indeed), and also arrives with its fair share of irrationalities and loose ends, ensuring that multiple viewings will be rewarded.
Is Goro a match for his father? Well, no, not yet. The characters here are decidedly flat (although the epicene Cob makes for a winningly louche villain), and a little humour would have brought them some much-needed warmth - even if the story's great earnestness is in itself a commendable rarity. Still, these are early days, and Goro has many decades yet to take over Hayao's mantle - or indeed to forge his own path. The talent is certainly there, if not fully formed, and one suspects that with time Goro will, like Arren, prove worthy to wield his father's sword and to continue his father's bid for immortality. In the meantime, Tales From Earthsea is an estimable enough start to what should be a long career in the magical art of animation.Reviewed on: 04 Feb 2008