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"Tales From Earthsea": A Troubled Fantasy

by on March 16, 2011

Aren't you the wrong color, young man?It’s hard to look at Studio Ghibli’s Tales From Earthsea and not wonder what might have been. The adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin’s fantasy novel series might have been directed by acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki, who had wanted to do such a project since before Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. But when permission finally came after years of delay the task instead fell to his son, Goro Miyazaki, while Hayao devoted his efforts to Howl’s MovingCastle. It’s impossible to know what might have been done differently, but, as it is, on its own merits Goro Miyazaki’s directorial debut is as distinguished by its flaws as by its beauty. The chief problem lies not with a lack of fidelity to its source material nor with its casually slow pacing; these are challenges that engaging storytelling can easily overcome. Unfortunately, despite some interesting ideas and an appealing setting, the film suffers most from an uneven narrative that is not executed as well as it should have been.

Earthsea is a suffering world. Drought, famine and pestilence afflict the land and its people, wizards are slowly losing the potency of their magic, and in a nearly unheard of event two dragons are spotted fighting each other. No one knows the reason for such an ill omen or these troubles, and the noble king of one troubled kingdom ponders what to do and manages the crisis as best he can—until he’s inexplicably murdered by his own son, Prince Arren. Arren takes his father’s magic sword and flees far into the wilderness of a desert, where he would have perished but for the timely intervention of Archmage Sparrowhawk. Sparrowhawk takes the troubled boy under his wing and continues his quest for answers about the world’s troubles, which soon lead the pair to the city of Hortown. All is not well there; the city is a bustling hub of commerce for just about everything, up to and including a prevalent slave trade run by “Lord Cob” and his men. This is where the essential plot takes form. It becomes clear that Arren is dealing with fearsome inner demons; he saves a young girl from slavers but assumes a callous and violent attitude like a man possessed, which drives her away despite his help. Furthermore Cob is revealed to be an evil sorcerer Sparrowhawk has faced before, and it isn’t long before the two are aware of each other. The conflict between the two is inevitable, and Arren is fated to be caught in the middle.

This is not a movie fixated on the archetypal fantasy quest, though. After Sparrowhawk rescues Arren from the slavers, the two head out to the farm of Tenar, a long-time friend of Sparrowhawk who is regarded as a “witch” for her alchemy skills. Under her care is Therru, the very girl Arren saved, who understandably wants little to do with him at first. The time the men spend helping out around the farm effectively sets the tone for the rest of the film. The country offers a refuge for all, and Sparrowhawk is given occasion to explain the importance of balance in nature and the essence of magic itself, which is based on the knowledge of a thing’s “true name” and gives man “the power to control the world.” Yet for Sparrowhawk, magic is a tool of necessity, not something to employ liberally lest the world be “easily damaged.” Whatever Tales from Earthsea‘s shortcomings, all this undoubtedly does give it a Ghibli-esque, environmentalist sensibility. The matter becomes important beyond the abstract soon enough. Cob turns out to be the root cause of world’s ills due to his pursuit of the ultimate taboo for a mortal man: using sorcery to achieve immortality, in utter defiance of the natural order of things.

Yakkul? Is that you?The immorality of this and the preciousness of mortal life is spoken of extensively throughout the climatic final act of the film, to the point that the topic is unfortunately explored at the expense of all else. The foremost problem lies with Arren, our intended protagonist. The specter of his father’s murder and his self-described “rage I can’t control” hangs over him like a dark cloud, and a recurring plot point is his metaphysical “shadow”, a spirit that seems to haunt him and represent a certain part of him. With some help from Therru the lad finds himself, yet the nature of this spirit and its ultimate fate remains frustratingly unclear. Even worse, the reason the murder occurred in the first place remains hopelessly obtuse. Arren’s character is explored and developed only to the extent that he learns to cope with what he’s done and accept the big lesson about being unafraid to live his life as it is. Satisfying as it is to see him gradually shift from a rather stoic and uninteresting figure to a young man ready to play the hero and take the fight to the villain, there could have been more to this character. For her part Therru warms to Arren and plays a critical role at a time when everyone else was in trouble, which is well and good. But during the climax she’s involved in a critical plot twist that is utterly astonishing in the worst way. It is downright impossible for the viewer to even guess it with the information that the narrative has to offer, and it makes no more sense in retrospect. In short, it’s totally out of nowhere. For a film that is the epitome of an independent adaptation that ought to stand on its own, problems like these are downright egregious. I can only hope that Goro Miyazaki has learned from this experience to deliver a far more incisive production in his next film, From Kokuriko Hill.

Disney’s cover description for Tales From Earthsea describes it as “a must-have DVD for every film enthusiast’s collection”. That’s an all too truthful statement; it is that group and that group alone that I would recommend this DVD to. Fantasy aficionados may derive some enjoyment from the world depicted here, and those who deeply love Studio Ghibli may be interested to see how one of the studio’s trademark ideals are represented in a more serious and less innocent context. But if you’re looking for a fun and entertaining family film or are looking to give a Ghibli movie a try, it’s undeniable that there are many better options.

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