Tales from Earthsea is the latest offering from Studio Ghibli and first from Goro Miyazaki. Yep, that’s right. That surname makes him son to pop Hayao and heir apparent to the visionary and iconoclastic Studio Ghibli.
Light shining through the celluloid of a new Ghibli film is usually grounds for anticipation to pass way beyond safe operating levels with the needle pushing dangerously into the red. Breath is so baited that oxygen deprivation becomes a real risk. It’s strange then that Earthsea came and went, passing with barely a ripple. Absent was the tidal wave of praise that follows the awing of the senses and mental engagement that we have come to accept from the Ghibli experience. This time round something was not quite right in the state of Ghibli.
Tales from Earthsea is like a close friend who gets way too trashed at a party. You love them dearly but the embarrassment of seeing them do something way, way out of character like, say, demonstrating pole dancing with a mop, can cause words to fail. The silence around Earthsea is about that level of embarrassment.
It does start well. The film opens with a beautifully staged fight between two dragons battling over stormy seas. Dragons in conflict represent a grim portent for the world of Earthsea. They symbolise a world out of balance. Ursula Le Guin’s series of fantasy novels initially seem a good fit for Ghibli as they play to the studio’s strengths of fantasy and worlds out of whack. World building has always been a long suit for Ghibli and Earthsea’s is no exception. Drawing on the Mediterranean Coast for inspiration, Ghibli uses Homerian Greece as a base then employs an overlay of feudal fantasy to create a uniquely exotic world that feels entirely plausible and alive.
Things get rolling when Prince Arren is forced to flee his hometown. There is drama in his exit and a dark side to his character but this becomes the first of many elements to be abandoned. Arren meets the Archmage Ged and focus turns to the failing world. Arren tags along displaying all the drive of a sleepwalker. This emotional range is unfortunately reflected in many of the characters’ facial art. Outwardly their appearance is all Hayao Miyazaki. However there is something missing. They are flat, expressionless interpretations that feel like mannequins without their old master to breathe life into them.
Plot pacing is non-existent. The focus should be on the search for the cause of the world’s imbalance but this is detoured into a bit of farming to show the need to get in touch with the land – the same land that is meant to be gripped by failing crops and dying livestock; priorities people, priorities! Early on there is a murder on which a key motivating force hangs. Two hours later, with the credits rolling, you realise it hasn’t been resolved in anything resembling a satisfactory manner. There are shadows, there are dragons, there is a feisty Miyazakian girl. Explained? Nope. At the point where Earthsea’s major conflict really got rolling I checked my watch – ninety-seven minutes – two thirds of the way through the film. Up to this point one really had use a lot of circumstantial evidence to connect the dots on the allegedly evil mage Cobb’s villainy – a case built on his dimly lit castle, dealings with comic relief, slave-trading henchmen and leaning a little too heavily on Liv Tyler-esque androgyny. Having chosen to show a pastoral idyll rather than a world in crisis and fail to establish Cobb’s motivation until very late, the finale is a damp squib. The climax resorts to a damsel in distress chase – a conclusion profoundly inappropriate for a world on the brink. I should have been reaching for a thesaurus to find alternatives to ‘clichéd’ and ‘poverty of imagination’ but by this point the lack of anything resembling tension meant that I was wildly nonplussed.
Goro’s Tales from Earthsea is a mess at every turn. From the hubris of overreaching in adapting a vast quantity of source material to the lack of vibrancy of life that Hayao Miyazaki brings to his stories, Goro’s work is a confused, patchwork Frankenstein’s monster; it has the appearance of a Ghibli film but it completely lacks any craft or storytelling.
But shhh, please, please don’t tell anyone.