Artoo02 -> RE: Studio Ghibli (14/7/2007 2:01:36 AM)
Tales From Earthsea - Expanded review.
2006, Goro Miyazaki, 115 minutes
Japanese (R2) DVD release (July 2007)
2-disc and 4 disc editions
****MINOR SPOILERS POSSIBLE****
I am a very big fan of Ghibli films, there isn't one I don't like. I love them for both their visual wonder and their fantastic stories. Tales From Earthsea, loosely based on Ursula K Le Guin's Earthsea books has both, but in the end manages more of the former than the latter in comparison to most other Ghibli films.
The film's story does have some interesting themes and subtexts, especially when you consider the real-world situation of the director trying to follow a father who is a living legend in the same field. It isn't a Spirited Away-style instant wow, but for his first feature film I think it's hard to not say Miyazaki Jnr has done a pretty great job. Visually the film is simply beautiful, with gorgeous backgrounds, really great physical interaction by the characters and great use of CGI in places (they've really got the moving perspective shots seen in the likes of Mononoke onwards down to a fine art now). Some of it is jaw-droppingly beautiful, both in rendering and animation of characters and backgrounds.
If I had a problem with the film it was probably in the structure or flow - for most of the film it felt a little as if it was the first in a trilogy. Having a read the books the film is loosely based on (more like 'inspired by' to some extent) I was pleased to recognise quite a few allusions to things from the books, but at the same time this was far from a straight adaptation. Ursula K. Le Guin's comments that it was Goro Miyazaki's film, not her book make a lot sense, in fact upon re-reading her reaction to the film (available online on her website here - (*** BEWARE SPOILERS THOUGH***)) I couldn't help but agree with most of her criticisms (you'll find I've regurgitated a few here myself, not through plagiarism but through honest agreement!).
That said, I could have watched it for another hour before it came to an end - it was one of those films that has such an exquisitely realised world you can just enjoy being in it. Both my girlfriend and myself thought a Ghibli Lord of the Rings would be awesome when watching this - it does have that epic fantasy feel, especially in its landscapes at times. Though quite what they would do with Tolkien's story goodness only knows! However, for the vastness of the world that is created, the story seems to be missing something - maybe as a westerner I'm used to more exposition earlier on in a film of this genre, but I tend to think the story makes references to plot points that explain (or arguably attempt to but fail to explain) motivations and/or backstories of characters. At one point in the film I was literally expecting a flashback from one of the characters (Tenar) to briefly retell some backstory that refers to the second Earthsea book - but instead it washes to the next scene, and we get a total of one further reference to that character's past. Perhaps that will not infuriate people who haven't read the book, but then those couple of lines of dialogue seem rather pointless otherwise - a half-way house that either needed more to them or could have just as easily been cut.
There's also a lot of 'borrowed' visuals from earlier Ghibli films, much as there was in Howl's Moving Castle. The bad guy Cob, (who you will swear is a woman at first) lives a castle that bears more than a passing resemblance to the one in Cagliostro - and his chief henchman Hare looks remarkably like Kushana's General Kurotawa in Nausicaa. Cob is a far less ambiguous villain than those found in most Ghibli films, though in the end, more a tragic pathetic one than anything.
It's a fairly dark film by Ghibli standards - there's not a lot of light relief in there, it feels downright horror-esque at a few points and there are a couple of splashes of blood and a brief bodily dismemberment in the film. The film features a fairly dark act by Arren, the film's main protagnonist quite early on, which kind of sets the tone, both in terms of seriousness and in terms of lacking full explanations. Some may have a bigger problem with that early act, as it's not very clear at all exactly why it happened, and I'm not entirely sure it was an artistic decision to have such ambiguity surrounding it.
At times I loved the weight this serious tone brought the film, (this is not a film where you might find slapstick punch-ups a la Castle in the Sky or Porco Rosso), but to be honest by the end it felt like for the running time there should have been a little more happening between the beginning and the end. Really, it just feels the film never gets up the extra gear it feels like it should - a couple of (very good) early action scenes perhaps giving the viewer a wrong impression that maybe won't leave such a disjointed feeling on repeat viewings.
Certainly watching the film for the second time, with the very good English dub featuring a wonderfully-cast Timothy Dalton as the Wizard Sparrowhawk/Ged (everyone has two names in this world - it's an important plot point in both book and film) I found myself less concerned with the structure/plot problems and more enamoured with the film in general. I am very much in the camp that almost always prefers the original language with subtitles, but I feel Disney/Ghibli have really done a great job on this dub - the mysterious young girl Therru sings a beautiful song mid-way through the film, and I was happy that the English version didn't butcher it like say, the dub of Kiki's Delivery Service did when it replaced the wonderful Japanese songs with horribly cheesy Americanised fare.
Thematically the film deals with issues of life and death / light and darkness and the idea of 'balance'. Whilst finding the themes interesting, and nicely reflected in the visuals of the film (sunlight/daytime and darkness/nighttime are beautifully realised) I felt it was another area that didn't quite get tied together in a coherent enough form to really hit home like they could have done.
The music for the film is pretty great too - I was almost as worried that Joe Hisaishi wouldn't be composing as I was that Hayao Miyazaki wasn't directing this, but Tamiya Terashima delivered a grand and ominous soundtrack that perhaps sometimes deserved to be matched by more drama than it was.
Don't get too hung up on the dragons in all the publicity shots/posters etc - they are there but they make up a very small amount of screen time. Whilst they look great, I wanted more, but it's probably good they are kept as precious rare things.
Am I happy with the film? Yes, very. Could it have been better? Yes. For all my quibbles and criticisms of the film it's a worthy addition to the studio's collection and on this effort I'm looking forward to seeing any future films by Goro Miyazaki. It actually fills my heart with hope that he might continue his father's legacy. I would guess most people who love most Ghibli films would certainly enjoy this one, if not quite putting it up there with (Hayao) Miyazaki's best, it's still a very good, perhaps frustratingly close to being truly excellent film at times. If you don't expect it to surpass your favourite Ghibli film you should be satisfied with Tales From Earthsea.
**** (Four Stars out of Five)
The DVD itself looks great, beautiful transfer (I'd guess it was wholly digital). The 4-disc set has a lovely shiny foil-like cover insert. (I'll try and get more/better pics up soon (relying on my mobile camera right now, sorry), though you can see better pics online already at Ghibliworld!). Both the 2-disc set and 4-disc set have English subtitles and the English dub included (alongside the original Japanese track obviously). The 4-disc set contains the film with other language subtitles and dubs and a DTS soundtrack, whereas the 2-discer is Dolby Digital only.