“Everything you see under the sun and stars owes its very existence to the Balance. The wind and seas, the powers of earth and light, all that these do is well and rightly done in the equilibrium… but now, men hold the power to control the world.”
Rage Mage Reviews!
Here’s a brutal reminder that Hayao Miyazaki won’t live forever: Tales from Earthsea. I guess the film was pawned off to the highest bidder, which ended up being a landscaper and Hayao Miyazaki’s son, Goro. Hayao was too busy. Y’know, making pretentious art and chain-smoking.
Goro Miyazaki seemed like the perfect choice to tarnish an author’s reputation.
Tales from Earthsea is based on a book series which nobody has heard of by Ursula K. Le Guin. Apparently, she never wanted an animated adaptation of her books because Looney Tunes and Mickey Mouse. She held out as Miyazaki senior sent letter after letter pleading for her to allow him to adapt her books. He even had to threaten her with the Yakuza. Wikipedia that.
Finally, Le Guin gave in when she saw Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, thinking “Hey, if they can make a dead serious, mud-colored sob-fest about children suffering and moping, then I should let them go ahead and use crayons to doodle up my Earthsea!”
But by then it was too late. Miyazaki senior was fed up with her crap and said he was too busy. Something about Howl’s Moving Castle being in production was fed to the press. So, producer Toshio Suzuki, who left the Japanese automobile manufacturing industry to babysit old men scribbling cartoons on napkins, said the movie should be directed by Miyazaki’s 39-year-old son, who really should get out more and meet someone instead of living in his parents’ basement watching reruns of Naruto and High School of the Dead. Miyazaki senior said “No”. The boy was inexperienced as a director. Suzuki said “Who cares?”
But guess what? The boy was inexperienced as a director.
Goro did have experience digging in the ground as a landscaper, so digging his own grave with Tales from Earthsea shouldn’t have been too hard for him. Following in his father’s massive footsteps, he filled his movie with violence, PTSD, drug-abuse, despair, angst, confusing plot points, night terrors, unlovable characters, and so much walking.
Goro took a little bit of Le Guin’s Earthsea (just a little) and some of his father’s graphic novel The Journey of Shuna and mixed it all together with some fantasy cliché, some Kingdom Hearts references, some half-hearted environmentalism (for dad), and what it means to be a teenager for the first time. The result is a movie with dialogue that feels like an endless hike through a wilderness to nowhere and walking sequences that actually are endless hikes through a wilderness to nowhere. All in the “captivating” first act!
Miyazaki senior had to pass the torch sometime and Susuki tried to pry the keys to Studio Ghibli out of his grubby, cigarette-stained sausage-fingers. But because Hayao did not approve of the decision for Goro to direct, the production was rife with strife. Domestic arguments, muttered insults, invocations of the gods of misfortune, and pencil-throwing filled the Ghibli sweatshop. Somehow the work got done.
In the end, Miyazaki senior admitted the movie was “Aight. Now get back to work digging ditches.” Le Guin herself no doubt regretted allowing an animated adaptation of her work, as she ended up in the confusing state of watching a movie with her characters doing things she didn’t write them doing. Goro himself was reshelved until he had a chance to write about surprise incest with From Up On Poppy Hill.
Tales from Earthsea doesn’t have huge gaping flaws, but it’s just really boring. The girl I rented for the night had seen the movie before and said that this was the one scene she could remember: crossing this bridge.
The movie opens with this text:
Only in silence the word, only in dark the light, only in dying life: bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky.
-The Creation of Éa
You can forget it already. That has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. The first scene is about two dragons ripping each other to pieces while a bunch of sniveling sailors (and one worthless wizard) watch the reptilian wrestling match from a boat below. And now you can pretty much forget about the dragons too.
A bunch of old people with funny names explain through their mustaches that dragons were once humans who chose freedom and the sky. Neat.
The fact that dragons are fighting means the “balance” is being destroyed. Crops withering, animals sick and dying, madness spreading. Typical end of the world type stuff. Who or what exactly is causing the balance to unbalance? Doesn’t matter. Probably men with their stupid cows farting all over the place and eroding the ozone to get Al Gore elected.
Instead of answered questions, we’re treated to two frowny teenagers. Prince Arren is introduced to us when he kills his own father in his first scene then steals his bewb-sword. It’s okay, we’re not told exactly why. There’s also Sparrowhawk, the Archmage (here pronounced Ark-mayj and even Ark-mahge at one point). He finds Arren and for no reason at all rescues him and tells him to follow him, no questions asked about the stolen bewb-sword. This is the only enjoyable character in the movie, so obviously Goro had to take him out of the movie for the third act.
Arren and Sparroweagle-eye wander around the countryside, stopping when they’re out of breath or to eat and poop, or to reflect on the current status of the chrysanthemums in bloom this season. Hawkbit even admits he doesn’t know where the road is leading or where they’re headed. Hey, just like this movie.
They eventually stumble into Horsetown (Has-town? Hose-town? The accents in this movie…) and Birdface leaves Arren behind since he’s such a whiner. The Archmage presumably has to head to Isengard to ruffle up some feathers. Meanwhiles, Arren panics at shadows and wind, and then conversely becomes demonically brave when beating up some slave traders to free a girl named, Therru. She’s PMS-ing, so she doesn’t thank him.
Arren dodges the heroin-dealers in the city (no joke) and gets captured by slaves himself as the narrative continues to happen to him. Hawkeye is forced to rush in to the rescue and free the young prince. Then the two of them get back to their walking. Can’t get enough of it. They eventually reach Arrowhawk’s floozie-on-the-side, Tenar, with whom Therru lives and the prince and Archmage get to do some farm work.
Oh yeah. There’s a villain in here, too: an irredeemably evil wizard searching for eternal life named Lord Cob. He’s an androgynous, juju-lipped man who speaks only in menacing kitten-whispers and he has the most gorgeous silky, silky hair. Cob’s got beef with Harrowtalk and Arren is the chosen one so there’s a scuffle a-brewin’, but it isn’t until the movie is half-way through that there’s any kind of thrust to the plot when stuff finally starts happening.
Goro managed to take all of the best things about his father’s moviemaking and throw them in a smelly dumpster, leaving Tales from Earthsea with the leftovers of Miyzaki senior’s genius. Every flaw of Hayao Miyazaki’s filmmaking is here and multiplied a hundred-fold: nonsensical plotting, no explanations, an over-reliance on computer imagery, no whimsical characters (except for those two old gossips… whimsy!).
Tales from Earthsea fought off every challenge of an inexperienced director and too many influences to rise to the occasion and become a less than mediocre movie. In the company of Studio Ghibli, that means it sucks. In a bare-knuckled fist fight with The Cat Returns for the title of worst Ghibli movie in existence, Earthsea was the reigning champion. You know it. I know it. Le Guin knows it as she cries herself to sleep each night.
Looking at all the images I’ve used so far, doesn’t this film look boring? I did that on purpose and left out the best scenes… Or didn’t I?
The 8-bit Review
I’ll be generous here: the animation is better than Cool World. You can see the tears of weeping animators in this film. It was the most CGI-heavy Ghibli film at the time in that you can look at moments and say “Well that’s computer animation”. Maybe that’s why Hayao grounded Goro from internet and tv privileges.
It’s not that the animation in Tales from Earthsea is horrible, per se. It may just be the best thing about this movie. But take the last five Ghibli films and the animation here is worse than almost all of them. The visuals are better than in The Cat Returns, at least, but here it seems like a step backward to simpler, cruder shapes and emotionless faces with slit-mouths and doll-eyes. The animation is also uneven, between good backgrounds and some choppy sequences. Use of light in the film is top notch.
There’s a funny thing that happens while watching this movie. The scenes with the dragons are ultra-cool for the first split second, with glimmers of brilliance, until you realize that the dragons look kinda silly. Like big plastic toys.
Hayao didn’t let Joe Hisaishi out of the closet for this one. The music was done by Tamiya Terashima, who came close to matching Hisaishi’s sense of “People talk loud when they wanna act smart, right? So if we play loud, people might think we’re good!” Problem is the music just isn’t memorable. If I was the whistling type and not the kind of man who spits on children as they pass by, I could recall to mind the themes from older Ghibli movies, but not from this one.
It all sounds oddly Middle Eastern combined with high fantasy noise, like Crusade-ish meets the Vikings. Why?
There’s also a song sung by Therru, called Therru’s Song (clever!), but it too is forgettable, or at least the meaningless lyrics are… No, I’m not just saying that because I was too busy writhing in pain to hear her singing! Here it is! Some jerk on YouTube added a lame keyboard-orchestra overlay because everyone’s got to make their place in history somehow.
If you’d like to avoid SPOILERS for this film (nerd), smack Ctrl+f Family Friendliness to skip the Narrative and Themes portions of this review. You may want to anyway considering this is Earthsea.
Ugh, so the Prince and the Archmage wander into the city and avoid buying drugs, spending their money on clothes for Arren. Then Arren gets separated by Spurruhook because the guy wanders off. Arren rescues Therru from slave traders working for Cob but offends Therru because he goes nuts during the fight. Then he has this weird dream (must’ve bought the drugs anyway) and gets captured by the same slave traders.
Spahak busts him out of prison so they can get back to wandering. Then they reach Tenar’s house so the Archmage can get his lovin’. Turns out Therru is there (yay…) but she’s a weeaboo who’s scared to talk to strangers. Arren and Speeheek stay there anyways because nobody cares about stupid Therru or her feelings, and Arren gets to learn about the Balance of nature and how sucky being human is. Plus he blisters his hands up on a plow.
Hare the slave trader notifies Lord Cob that his slaves were freed by the Archmage, causing actual events to begin to happen as the villain orchestrates Arren’s capture. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Arren gets with Therru and they have their first real conversation together after he cries because of her singing voice. But he ruins the moment by telling her that he killed his own dad. Great first date. “Call me.”
When Farrowbalk walks off again and gets lost in the countryside somewhere, Cob’s men go to Tenar’s farm and kidnap her, leaving Therru behind while Arren went out for a walk. He is chased down by a shadowy nightmare and feints like a nerd in the swamp. Cob gets him and shmoozes his way into learning Arren’s true name (Lebanon? Lebinin? Henry? Dang accents and whispers!), thus now the wizard can control the prince.
Spleentalk returns to the farm with Arren’s lost nips-sword and Therru tells him that Arren and Tenar are gone, and are probably being tickle-tortured at that spooky castle right on the other side of the forest. The Archmage rides in Gandalf the White style but doesn’t save the day because Arren attack him and his powers drain. He’s captured by Cob, who’s apparently an old nemesis/flame/hairdresser of his.
It’s up to Therru now to get the bewb-sword and enter Cob’s castle at the behest of Arren’s Heartless/Nobody. She does so. She finds Arren. She gives him the sword and a pep talk cuz he’s aww sad. The two frowny teens confront Cob, who was about to execute Birdcaulk and his floozie, and Arren is finally, inexplicably able to draw the bewb-sword and deliver bewb-wrath on Cob, severing his hand with the bewby-blade.
Cob gets super creepy because it turns out he’s actually a much more creepy guy than he appeared to be, and seemingly kills Therru while Arren fails to do anything about it.
Then the ultimate deus ex machine happens! Turns out Therru is a dragon. I bet you saw that coming! She burns the eyeless old hag Cob has become and flies Arren to safety. And that’s it. They hug and we miss out on what could’ve been an awesome transformation sequence between dragon and human Therru because Studio Ghibli runs on pennies. The dragons are seen peacefully flying through the sky. I guess the Balance is back? Just killing Cob did it. He was a jerk, anyway. Nevermind there are a bunch of polluting men and farting cows still out there.
While the credits roll, we see the characters doing more mundane things at the farm, because there wasn’t enough of that in the movie already. I wish the final shot had been Arren going out for a nice walk.
Providence? Messianic? Slavery? People don’t believe in magic anymore, so magic-atheism? The value of life? Secular humanism? How to deal with suffering and fear (not drugs)? The other slaves don’t leave the slave traders’ cart after Sparrowhawk breaks their bonds, so… self-imposed bondage? Nature out of balance and men must use magic to live in harmony with nature by learning the true names of things, so… eh I give up. Environmentalism balance?
Tales from Earthsea seems to be about everything and nothing simultaneously. I walked away with this: Life is short and therefore life is precious. If humans lived forever we wouldn’t value life. So since life is short, I don’t plan on watching Tales from Earthsea ever again.
Speaking of drugs, Cheech Marin is the only good performance in this movie but that’s only because it’s Cheech. His voice sounds ridiculous next to everyone else’s mutterings and fake accents. And that’s a real kick in the nuts because Willem Dafoe plays da foe in this movie, but considering the sound of the dvd or bluray spinning in your player is louder than his dialogue deliveries, you won’t be able to appreciate his sinister tones anyways.
Timothy Dalton mumbles his way through voicing the Archmage while Matt Levin handles Arren’s muttering. I wish I could understand their dialogue, but it sounds like the actors recorded their lines with their heads in toilets.
Therru is the worst of the worst, though. Blaire Restaneo sounds like she’s auditioning for the part, like she’s in a school play or something.
Family Friendliness: 4/10
This is a bloody, violent, sad, mopey, depressing, wistful, regretful movie about killing your dad, being an orphan, getting sold into slavery, and cheating death with black magic. Put the kids to bed.
An uneven story with uneven animation about a magical world where magic is almost gone and there are barely any dragons. Any awesome fantasy stuff we might’ve seen was sacrificed at the feet of two dead-eyed teenagers and their ham-fisted environmental message.
This may be the only Earthsea animated adaptation, but we want it to stay that way.
My Personal Grade: 4/10
For all of the hyperbole above, I really just thought Tales from Earthsea was boring. And we’re talking about the product of an animation studio renown for their slow-paced but stunning films. This one, though, is probably the worst in their whole series. I mean, I guess? I should probably get around to seeing the other Studio Ghibli films sometime soon.
Goro Miyazaki’s Tales from Earthsea may make you want to read Le Guin’s novels, but hey, sadomasochism is alive and well.
Aggregated Score: 4.9
Did you enjoy this post? Consider becoming a Warrior of Light and join us in restoring integrity and quality to entertainment journalism. We specialize in long-form, analytical reviews and we aim to expand into a podcast and webzine with paid contributors! See our Patreon page for more info!