This review was requested by patron Purr Elise. If you’d like me to review a movie, please consider supporting my Patreon.
Goro Miyazaki breaks my goddamned heart, you know that?
I feel for the guy, I really do. When faced with having to live up to the legacy of his father, a man who will be remembered as the Michaelangelo of the 21st century, Goro wisely tried to forge his own path in a different field and be his own man. He studies landscaping, becomes a construction consultant and even helped to design the Ghibli museum which he then became the director of. At 34. I mean, this guy has done some amazing things, right? That is a damn impressive resume. More than I’ll ever accomplish, that’s for sure.
And then, he gets called in by his father’s studio to contribute some landscapes for a movie. They take a look at them and say “Hey, these are really good and also your father is basically the God of Animation who walks among us in the form of a man, you should totally direct this movie.”
And suddenly, he’s exactly where he never wanted to be, directing an animated movie where he has to be compared to his father and there is just no way he can win. And, despite bringing the movie in on time and on budget, he will forever be known as the guy who directed Tales From Earthsea, the “bad” studio Ghibli film.
And now, this incredibly accomplished young man is viewed as a failure. A fuckup. Someone defined by not being as good as someone else.
And that is just so unfair to the guy. I mean, I know I dunked pretty hard on From Up On Poppy Hill but it wasn’t bad. Okay, it was boring and uninteresting and unengaging and I guess that does kinda mean it was bad but, shit, like I could do better?
This was the question that was dogging me all through watching Tales From Earthsea. How do I justify giving this movie a bad review when it has better animation and more striking visuals that probably a good 90% of the movies I’ve reviewed on this blog. I wanted to like this one. I really did. I committed a cardinal sin of reviewing in wanting to give this one a pass because of the person who made it and not on a fair assessment of the work. Taken on its own merits, without comparison to the rest of Studio Ghibli’s output, Tales From Earthsea is a beautifully animated work and a veritable feast for the eyes.
It is also, unfortunately, a pretty terrible movie.
Hey, while we’re throwing a pity party, do you know who else I feel sorry for? Ursula le Guin. I confess I haven’t read any of her novels but I’ve heard wonderful things and will definitely have to fill that void in my nerdery at some point. But whereas other great fantasy authors like JRR Tolkien and George RR Martin get huge, sumptous, multi-million dollar, painstakingly faithful adaptations of their work, Le Guin got this; a loosey goodesy amalgalm of the first four Earthsea that is generally considered the worst Studio Ghibli film. Oh, and it’s also without question the best Earthsea adaptation.
In the Land of Elad, the kingdom is beset by plagues and famine and the king has called a conclave of his wisest beards to figure out what the hell is going on.
The king seems to be a pretty awesome leader, calling for doctors and supplies to held the afflicted populace and consulting with his wizard, Root, to find out what the hell is going on. Now of course, in this kind of situation, it’s usually because the king has killed his father and schtupped his mother but the King of Elad is a fine, upstanding sort of gent so that’s probably not the reason. Root tells the king that magic is fading as the world slips out of balance. Reports also reach the king that dragons have been seen fighting off the coast which is a very troubling sign as dragons in this universe are super chill. Root explains that dragons and humans were once one people but that those that sought power and wealth became human beings because evolution in Earthsea is drunk off its ass. And to add to the king’s woes, he’s told that his 17 year old son Arren has gone missing. The King’s not too worried, figuring that the young Prince is probably off in a bar somewhere with a fat knight drinking sack and enjoying his wastrel youth and goes to bed. And then, suddenly, Arren ambushes him in the corridor and shanks him.
So. To recap. Goro Miyazaki’s debut feature opens with the hero brutally murdering his own father.
Actually, as obvious as that reading is, Goro himself refuted it, essentially saying “Why would I want to kill my father? I hardly know him.”
Which…Jesus. You see why I want to cut the guy a break?
After the opening credits, we cut to Arren now fleeing through the desert on a large deer-like thing that everyone in this movie will insist on calling a “horse”.
He’s chased through the desert by a pack of wild wolves that he fights off in a scene that directly references a similar sequence in Hayao Miyazaki’s 1968 film; Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun. He’s rescued by a mysterious traveller named Sparrowhawk, who notices that Arren has a mysterious sword but doesn’t ask any questions because it’s obviously quest-related.
Sparrowhawk agrees to let the young man travel with him to Hort Town (I really thought it was called something else and almost spat out my tea). Actually, it might as well be Whore Town as the place is rife with prostitution, drug-dealing and slave-trading. But of course, it doesn’t matter as long as the schools are good.
Arren learns that Sparrowhawk used to be a wizard but that he can’t cast spells anymore as magic has started to fade from the world. Sparrowhawk leaves Arren alone while he goes to take care of some business. Arren stumbles across some slavetraders trying to abduct a young girl named Therru. Now, in the novels, Therru was abused by her parents who left her with horrific burns all down one side of her body. But in the movie?
I mean, come on! I’ve gotten sunburn worse than that (literally, I’m Irish. We were not made for the sun and one day shall return to our home beneath the mountains).
When they see Arren, the slavers’ leader, Hare, orders his men to attack him. At first, Arren is listless and barely moves but suddenly he’s overtaken with a strange, manic energy and tells the slavers “Life means nothing to me”.
Arren kicks seven shades of snot out of the slavers and Hare holds Therru hostage. Arren tells him that he doesn’t care what happens to her and Hare is sufficiently freaked out that he lets her go and runs off. Therru, understandably, is pretty pissed off at Arren (since he had no way of knowing that Hare wouldn’t kill her), and runs off without a word. Arren goes and sits on a step, falls asleep, has a dream where he sees a dragon, wakes up to find the slavers have come back and gets captured by them.
Okay, now this is as good a point as any to talk about the movie’s biggest problem. All the way through this thing you’ll find your interest flagging despite the fact that there’s a lot of stuff that, taken on it’s own, is interesting or visually appealing. The human mind craves clear, efficient narrative and when a story is taking too long or wasting time, it’s very easy for the audience’s attention to wander.
Like here. The script needs to get us from Point A (Arren save Therru from the slavers) to Point B (Arren gets captured by the slavers and sold into slavery). The most efficient way to do this is to have it all take place in one scene; Arren confronts the slavers, Therru escapes, Arren gets overpowered and but in chains. Boom. Done. Efficient. Quick. Logical. So why the heck do we have this long sequence of Arren going off, staring at the sunset, going to sleep, dreaming and then waking up to be captured by the slavers? It adds nothing and it’s wasting the audience’s time and attention. This is probably the worst example but it’s all the way through this thing and it makes it feel like a much worse movie than it actually is.
Arren is carted off in chains but is rescued by Sparrowhawk (and again, this is redundancy, Sparrowhawk already rescued him from the wolves so we’re repeating a story beat for no reason) and they ride off together. Sparrowhawk tells Arren that he had to use some of the last of his precious magic on a finding spell to locate him, and Arren apologises but Sparrowhawk tells him it was his fault for leaving him alone in a wretched hive of scum and villainy like Whore Town. Sparrowhawk takes Arren to a farm OH GOD NO NOT A FARM. FARMS ARE WHERE STORY MOMENTUM GOES TO DIE. LOOK AT THE WALKING DEAD. THEY SPENT HALF A SEASON ON THAT FUCKING FARM. FARMS ARE TERRIBLE. STOP.
While Arren sleeps, Sparrowhawk talks with the lady who owns the farm. She’s named Tenar and has some kind of mysterious history with Sparrowhawk. As I said, I haven’t read the books but I’m getting a kind of Picard/Guinan vibe off these two. Their talking wakes Tenar’s adopted daughter, who turns out to be Therru.
Sparrowhawk is stunned when he sees Therru’s face, asking himself “Could she be…”
But we’ll have to wait to find out what be she could, because now it’s time to meet our villain…
This is Morticia Addams, the aloof and mysterious matriarch of the Addams family…
Sorry, the is Lord Cob, the mysterious wizard who rules Hort Town. Now I haven’t been mentioning the voice actors thus far because if I credit the English dub actors I then have to credit the Japanese dub actors and before you know it half the review is proper nouns but I will break this rule to say that I really like Wilem Defoe’s performance as Cob. He hardly ever speaks above a whisper and the effect is quite eerie, almost enough to make you forget that he’s named “Lord Cob” and cobs aren’t scary unless everything is on a cob.
Hare tells Cob that some of the slaves escaped and he calmly uses his magic to give hare a heart attack. But Hare tells him that the slaves were freed by a wizard with a scar on his face which tells Cob that Sparrowhawk is in tow and is all up in his bidness.
Back on the farm, Arren and Sparrowhawk do farmwork for Tanar and Sparrowhawk teaches Arren about the Balance, which is an energy field created by all living things which surrounds us and penetrates us and binds the galaxy together.
Therry, however, does not like Arren at all because he’s a filthy nihilist (fuck me, dude) and tells him “I despise anyone who doesn’t care about life”.
Sparrowhawk leaves Arren with Tenar, Therru and the massive chip on Therru’s shoulder and goes back to Hort town to look for Arren’s boob sword, which he lost during his tussle with the slavers. The merchant tells him that the sword is worthless because it’s rusted and can’t be pulled from its sheath. Sparrowhawk almost gets arrested by Hare but escapes by disguising his face.
Back on the farm, Tanar sends Arren to fetch Therru for dinner and he finds her standing in a field and singing softly to herself. And for a second, it’s magic.
Just a beautiful, beautiful moment.
And then she keeps singing. And singing. And singing.
And you realise, oh no. Goro is going to give us the whole song.
The whole goddamn song.
This is not a musical. There’s no accompaniment. It’s just a moment that the movie chooses to devote three whole minutes to.
I’m not going to say it stops the movie dead, because you can’t stop something that’s already stationary but that speaks to some pretty poor judgement on the part of the director.
After the concert is over, Arren tells Therru that he murdered his father and that he has no idea why so now he has to leave in case he loses control again.
He leaves the farm and finds himself being stalked by a mysterious figure who turns out to be his double.
In a desperate panic to escape his double, Arren almost drowns in a river and awakens to find himself being tended to by Lord Cob.
Cob tells Arren that Sparrowhawk is a bad dude and that he’s just using Arren to get what he wants; eternal life. Cob tells Arren that he is…the chosen one!
Cob says that Arren will be given the secret to eternal life and Cob can help free him from the fear of death that haunts him and that all he needs is his true name. See, in Earthsea everyone has a secret name that they never share with anyone because to know something’s true name is to have total power over them. Arren tells Cob that his true name is Lebannen and before you can say “Tish! That’s French!” Cob has complete control over him.
Meanwhile, Hare and the rest of the slavers arrive at Tenar’s farm and kidnap her to draw Sparrowhawk out. Therru escapes and runs to warn Sparrowhawk and he tells her to give the sword to Arren while he goes and rescues Tenar. He rides up to the castle on Arren’s horse (seriously, if that’s a horse I’m a fucking jerboa) and comes face to face with Cob.
Alright, I think it’s time to say something nice.
Cob reveals his plan to Sparrowhawk, which is to force open the doorway between life and death, thus making himself immortal…I would have thought closing that particular door would…fuck it, never mind. Anyway, Sparrowhawk is aghast at this, saying that death is a vital part of existence but Cob scoffs at this. The nice touch is that both their wands are casting light, but Sparrowhawk’s is casting a light that resembles natural sunlight, whereas Cob’s is casting harsh, artificial looking blue light. It’s a nice visual metaphor.
Cob transforms into a goo monster (hey, it may be the weak sister of Ghibli but it’s still Ghibli dammit) and reveals his brainwashed slave, Arren. Arren attacks Sparrowhawk, saying that he’s going to live forever, but Sparrowhawk is able to talk sense into him and break Cob’s control.
Meanwhile Therru bumps into Arren’s double who reveals that he’s actually the goodness within Arren or something and tells Therru his true name. Therry sneaks into the castle and find Arren, who’s curled up in a corner and wishing he’d just stayed in landscaping school. She calls him by his true name and also tells him her true name, Tehanu, which in Earthsea terms is basically third base. Tehanu/Therru gives Arren/Lebannen his sword and they rush to save Sparrowhawk and Tenar who are about to be executed by Cob.
Arren has finally voercome his fear of death and realised that the force will be with him always and that the power was within him the whole time and that winners don’t do drugs and finally unsheathes his sword and cuts Cob’s wand-hand, what he used for wanding. This causes Cob to lose his magic and rapidly age in a damn disturbing bit on animation.
Arren tries to convince Cob that death ain’t no thang and it’s not really worth upturning the whole balance of nature but Cob ain’t having it and tries to strangle Therru but she turns into a dragon and burns him alive, sure why not, I can’t think of a better way to end this, works for me.
This incidentally, was something that really pissed Ursula le Guin off, because stories where the good guys save the day by finding an evil guy and killing him is really not what she’s about. Anyway, Therru turns back into a person and and Arren tells her that he’s going back home to atone for murdering his father but that some day he’ll back and see her.
Yeah…dude, I’m all for facing up your past mistakes but I’m pretty sure there has never been a single human society that is super chill about regicide. You’re never seeing any of these people again, be honest with them. Sparrowhawk offers to go with him so there’ll be a friendly face in the crowd at his quartering and they depart for Elad.
Therru looks up to see dragons peacefully flying in the sky, showing that the world’s balance is returning to normal (must be nice).
Tales From Earthsea, I’m sad to say, earns its reputation as the runt of Ghibli’s litter. Which is not to say that there isn’t a lot to admire here, or that it isn’t in many ways a stunningly impressive debut, at least from a technical perspective. Worse looking and worse directed than other Studio Ghibli films? No doubt, but that is a LONG way from saying that it’s bad on its merits. No, Earthsea’s problems are in the script, which starts slow, builds to complete stillness and ends with utter anti-climax. There are events, but there is no story here.
The movie has its defenders, and I wish them well.
But all I can say at the end of this one is: Keep trying Goro. I’m rooting for you.
Animation 16/20: Only somewhat stunning, fairly stupendous, and mildly smurges.
Leads 06/20: Arren is like the anti-Ashitaka. There’s a fascinating character buried in here, but it needs a better script to let him out.
Villain 14/20: As if often the case with bad animated films, the villain is the saving grace.
Supporting Characters: Their true names are “bleh”.
Music 14/20: Tamiya Terashima contributes a beautiful score.
FINAL SCORE: 55%
Next update: 11 April 2019
NEXT TIME: Huh? Why the hell was I asked to review this?
Let me consult Wikipedia… “Matthew Broderick plays Phillipe Gaston, a young thief known as “The Mouse”.”
Ahhhh…I get it.