In the magical world of Earthsea where a world has hung in equilibrium for eons, dragons are fighting in the sky. The death of the King, murdered by his son, Prince Arren, stokes the fire of a world thrown dangerously off kilter. Adapted from the Earthsea fantasy series by acclaimed novelist Ursula K. Le. Guin, ‘Tales From Earthsea’ is an unusual blip in quality from the otherwise reliable Japanese animation studio, Studio Ghibli. It takes a slapdash approach by cobbling together a plot taken from various elements dotted around the lengthy source material.
After witnessing the murder of his father by Prince Arren (for which there is no contrition, no emotional arc, and no plot resolution which begs the question, why bother?) we are introduced to him as a protagonist. His flight from capture is an opportunity for the land of Earthsea to be explored by otherwise sheltered eyes, but the downside is that for the majority of the movie Arren is a passive victim of circumstance, seemingly unable or unwilling to take charge of his own destiny. This isn’t helped at all by the mumbled and unengaging English dub voice by Matt Levine. It’s hard to connect to a character who has little to excite the interest.
Of the other characters there is again few to really hook you in. Perhaps the calm and confident wizard, Sparrowhawk (voiced by Timothy Dalton in the dub) will keep you going as his self-assured nature oozes power, but alone this is not enough. Unusually for a Ghibli film there is also a definite bad guy. Evil wizardry is afoot with Cobb, whose threat is weakened dramatically by both utterly divorced from the other parts of the movie (he sit in his castle, being evil) and also yet another mumbled and sleepy voice in the dub (this time courtesy of Willem Defoe). In fact the voice acting is so dull that I strongly recommend you forgo the dub for the subtitled version instead.
Tales From Earthsea is structured into three entirely separate acts. The initial ‘exploration’ phase delivers some visual treats, undeniably. Whilst we never really get a sense of the wider world the places that our characters do visit are richly detailed. The mid-section, where Arren is left at a farm with the maternal Tenar and cautious young Therru (whose life he saves earlier but who, for pacing reasons, holds a grudge against him) is a baggy and plodding section that tries (and fails) to develop inter-character relationships. It’s only come the closing chunk of the movie that at last the animators can go to town and the most enjoyable section comes from a magical battle of suitably epic proportions.
Tales From Earthsea has a reputation as ‘the bad one’ in Studio Ghibli’s library and sadly this is justified. It the debut movie from Gorõ Miyazaki (son of acclaimed director and studio founder, Hayao Miyazaki) and his inexperience is all too telling. He would later put in a much better effort with ‘From Up On Poppy Hill’, but Tales From Earthsea suffers from horrible pacing problems and characters that utterly fail to make interesting decisions, either practically or emotionally.
Anything you might enjoy within Tales From Earthsea can be found realised much better in other Ghibli movies, making this entry one for completists only.
Words by Michael Record