Tales of Earthsea
Directed By Goro Miyazaki
Studio Ghibli, 2006
By Rachel Kahn
It’s amazing that Hayao Miyazaki’s son somehow acquired rights to Ursula K. Leguin’s Earthsea trilogy (now in five parts). I’m not sure how this happened, since the last movie made from it was so bad that Le Guin disowned it entirely. Ghibli must have wooed her with the most scenic clips from Princess Mononoke and My Neighbour Totoro.
That said, if there is one thing this movie accomplishes effortlessly, it is the pure magic of the landscape, and the character designs look like the work of someone who had at least skimmed the books, and key details that stood out to me as a reader manifest on screen. If you haven’t read the books, you will find it easy to tell characters apart, if not much else about them, but you will still be confused because none of the wizards look like Gandalf.
You will also be confused by the hundreds of little references throughout the film to concepts, places, and people that are explained thoroughly in the novels but are given almost no context in the film. This is because, for some reason or another, Miyazaki has chosen to adapt the third book in the series, not the first.
I can think of many good reasons for this: the third book has a strong moral, the third book has a larger conflict, and the third book has more dragons. However, the third book relies on two full novels of lead-up and backstory, and there was no room in the already-rushed plot to fill in many of those gaps. If you’re the kind of viewer who is okay with the occasional non-sequitur in your movies, though, you should be alright. The basics of the plot are explained clearly enough, and the villains are stereotyped enough, that you should be able to follow the conflict. And thankfully for the slower viewers, the movie wraps up with a Ghibli-patented exposition speech where every character gets a chance to tell you the moral of the story. Courtesy of Leguin, of course, it’s a very heady moral, but, regardless, everyone spells it out in their own special way in the last half hour of the film.
As far as the plot goes, it’s a pretty standard good-wizard-versus-evil-wizard set-up: a rogue prince, an eccentric little girl, some evil guards, and a dragon-powered deus ex machina. Leguin’s tweaks on the fairy-tale plot do show up in the film, but that’s largely where the non-sequiturs come in, and this is what makes me sad. Those familiar with anime will write off much of the unexplained in this film as cultural artifacts, but there are fantastic plot moments left untold behind many of the monsters, dreamscapes, and cameos, and these blank spots leave the plot of the film feeling weak and superficial at the best. Subtle story moments end up recounted bluntly and didactically by characters who have minimal dialogue otherwise, and much of the exposition time is wasted on cliché pursuit scenes and action sequences. From a studio that is known for movies that build worlds, Ghibli fails to set the scene much beyond painting the pretty backgrounds.
As a lover of the books, this film was a let down, and as a follower of Ghibli, this film was a let down; but if you come to it expecting a pretty fairy tale, you might almost be satisfied.