Even a prolific animation studio like Ghibli can turn out a lesser effort. Hiroyuki Morita's THE CAT RETURNS was my personal least favorite Ghibli movie, but that film, simplistic and shallow as it was, seems to have much more accolades than 2006's TALES FROM EARTHSEA, arguably one of the first productions from the studio to split audiences and critics alike.
Ironically enough, the controversy actually began prior to the film's release. It has been stated that Hayao Miyazaki had expressed interest in directing a film based on Ursula K. LeGuin's famous fantasy novels, but the author, displeased with previous attempts, declined... until the success of Miyazaki's HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE (arguably one of the director's least excellent but still brilliant efforts). However, it was ultimately decided that the film would be handled by Miyazaki's own son, Goro, under the persuasion of producer Toshio Suzuki. Miyazaki Senior was most displeased by these turn of events and it is said that his relationship with Goro became strained during the production period. Perhaps Hayao had reason to fear that his son was not ready to tackle such an ambitious story; although TALES FROM EARTHSEA performed well financially, it was attacked by critics and even fans of the books. In fact, Goro received the "Worst Director" Golden Raspberry Award for his first attempt. All of this sounds like a cruel, undeserved fate for the debut of the son of Japan's most respected animator, but even author Ursula K LeGuin has been disappointed with Goro's film. In fact, TALES FROM EARTHSEA would not even see a release in the United States for another five years.
The criticisms TALES FROM EARTHSEA has received are not without merit. Anyone expecting another PRINCESS MONONOKE or CASTLE IN THE SKY will probably be disappointed for, while this film shows moments of brilliance and imagination, it falls short from the upper echelon of those films. The problems lie in the storyline and characterizations.
Fans of LeGuin's books will probably be even more let down by this movie. It is based heavily on the third book, "The Farthest Shore", but while most of the situations and characters survive the transition to the screen, Goro attempts to incorporate elements from the other books into the film. But he does so in a way that only results in a tangled, confusing plot which not only feels rushed, but very incomplete and disorganized. Sometimes events happen without explanation, and what little explanation we get is unsatisfying; maybe fans of the books will grasp what Goro's intentions are, but others will find themselves asking questions which unfortunately, never get answered.
The film gets off to a promising start with a stormy sequence in which a ship at sea witnesses a bloody clash between two dragons. It's exciting and intense, with a brief flash of gory violence that brings one to mind of the similarly graphic moments from PRINCESS MONONOKE. TALES FROM EARTHSEA is still on that fine start when we see Arren, a teenage prince, inexplicably murder his father and escapes into a desert. He is rescued from wolves by Sparrowhawk, a kindly sorcerer with a scar on his face (for reasons that readers of the first book "Wizard of Earthsea" will recognize). Sparrow's mission is to restore the balance that has been disrupted in the mystical land of Earthsea.
However, when these two adventurers cross paths with other characters such as a moody, introverted “slave” named Therru, a warmhearted farmer, and an evil wizard intent on gaining (predictably) eternal life, it becomes evident that Goro is trying to cram too much story worth of at least four books into a two hour film. Aside from giving the characters little time to fully develop into fleshed out personalities, the film works in a very confusing and frustratingly murky subplot about a shadowy “clone” of Arren that shows up from time to time to torment the youth. This is handled very awkwardly, with zero foreshadowing and the whole “explanation” behind the whole thing leaves questions instead of answers. I was also very unclear about the climactic finale in which a girl transforms into a dragon; again, this is done with no explanation, that it only makes the audience baffled instead of thrilled.
Perhaps another big issue with the film is the pacing; as mentioned, the film’s best sequence is the opening dragon fight, but such action moments are rather scanty throughout the rest of the movie, resulting in long, extensive stretches where nothing really happens. For instance, at the halfway point, there is a long sequence in which the characters end up working on a farm. Although intended to provide character development, this sequence only slows down the film and feels more like padding than anything else. Brief moments such as Sparrowhawk and Arren talking about blistered hands after helping to plow the field feel strangely detached from the rest of the plot instead of anything else. The real areas in which Goro shows strength as an animator are the dream sequences—and there are quite a few in this tale—in which the characters find themselves standing on sunlit landscapes with luscious colors one moment and nearly drowning in an ooze-infested lake the next. These are actually far more interesting than much of the talkier scenes in the movie.
The lack of compelling characters is another major shortcoming with TALES FROM EARTHSEA. Sparrowhawk, for instance, is nobility personified, and as such, is pretty boring. Arren could have been a compelling troubled hero — sort of a darker version of Ashi-taka from MONONOKE, but his character development comes across as rather hazy to be interesting. The slave girl Therru, despite showing some backbone and the bitterness of San, isn’t much more endearing than her co-stars. Cob probably ranks as the most disappointing villain in any Ghibli film; oh sure, he’s creepy and acts evil, but he doesn’t have much of a personality, and lacks the charisma of, say, Muska from CASTLE IN THE SKY. That he doesn’t get much to do in the film is also a letdown. Cob’s slavetrader captain henchman, Hare, is much more effective as a badguy, and arguably is the only interesting character in the whole movie to display any personality. He sneers, cackles, rasps threats, and is remorselessly ruthless. It also helps that he is voiced by Cheech Marin in the Disney-produced English dub... who naturally gives the best performance in the whole film!
Speaking of the dub, this is probably my least favorite of the Disney Ghibli dubs, not because it is badly done—Disney has never produced an unlistenable dub as far as I’m concerned; their past dubs have all been fantastic, contrary to what others may say (yes, even the ones with extra dialogue and music). Perhaps because of the murky nature of this movie, it is difficult for the dub to be as effective, despite the efforts of everyone involved. Still, the performers and voice director Gary Rydstrom do their best: As mentioned, Marin plays the part of Hare perfectly and steals the show. Timothy Dalton does an excellent job as Sparrowhawk, embuing him with wisdom, warmth, and subtlety. Mariska Hargitay is also very good as the kindly farmer Tenar. Matt Levin as Arren is a bit of a trickier issue: he starts out somewhat flatly, but he gradually improves and gets especially good at the end. On the other hand, Blaire Restaneo’s Therru is the least effective of the voice cast; she shines brilliantly in singing the film’s only song, a melancholy acapella solo originally rendered by Aoi Teshima and does all right in the tense scenes, but I wasn’t so sold on the rest of her scenes. Willem Dafoe’s Cob works best in the climactic scenes where he rasps his way to the tower, but otherwise spends most of the time talking in a very soft, monotonous voice. I don’t know if it was supposed to convey darkness or not, but I didn’t find it particularly effective (in fact, I was chuckling upon hearing him speak for the first time) and I’m still not sure if he was the right choice for the character. Simply put, he’s no match for Mark Hamill’s Muska. The rest of the voices are fine, although they’re not nearly as memorable as in any of the other Ghibli dubs. Even purists who insist on watching the film in Japanese will probably be disappointed, as the voice acting, or at least what I’ve heard, isn’t much more effective than that of the dub.
Probably the most pleasing aspect of the film is its musical score contributed by Tamiya Terashima. Ghibli films have excelled with gorgeous soundtracks, and this is no exception. Using melancholy melodies and a full orchestra and chorus reminiscent of Hans Zimmer, Terashima provides a gorgeous and poundingly dramatic symphony that compliments the mood of the story perfectly. (As mentioned, Therru’s song midway through the film is a haunting highlight.) And of course, the animation is as richly detailed and beautiful as any Ghibli film.
There are moments where TALES OF EARTHSEA does exude some haunting visuals, but all in all, it’s probably the weakest of the Studio Ghibli movies by far. Had Goro Miyazaki opted for a less daunting storyline, then maybe he wouldn’t have received so much backlash for his debut feature. As such, the obvious failings of EARTHSEA shows that he is not yet ready to fill his father’s shoes. But even with all that said, is this movie still worth watching? Absolutely, especially if you’re a Ghibli completist. Even with its faults, TALES FROM EARTHSEA still has its share of high points to make it worth a look. But don’t expect another instant classic; on that level it falls short.