Ghibli are back with another brace of Blu-Ray releases (Howl?s Moving Castle & Tales from Earthsea) edging us closer to the much-waited for release of their most popular films ?Spirited Away? and ?My Neighbour Totoro?.
First up is Goro Miyazaki?s ?Tales Form Earthsea?, based loosely on the third Earthsea book by Ursula Le Guin. Yes, that read Goro, not Hayao. This Ghibli pic was directed by son-of-the-genius, Goro, not by the master himself. It was also animated by many of Studio Ghibli?s younger team members. And boy, does it show!
Admission time?I am an avid Ghibli fan. I honestly believe Studio Ghibli is the finest production house in the world, even outpacing the likes of Pixar. Their range of films, breadth of storylines, layers of characters and locations?it all adds up to a canon of work that has no competitor. Yes, I am a Japanoholic, but this transcends my love for all things Nippon. Their films engage on so many levels, they are unafraid of switching styles and themes, and they consistently allow film-makers to tell original and interesting stories. So you will be shocked to hear me say that ?Tales From Earthsea? is a Ghibli film I simply do not like! I dislike it so much that I really didn?t want to have to sit through it yet again. But here we are, so let?s get down to the review.
Hayao Miyazaki is unashamed in his love for Le Guin?s Earthsea novels. Many of her themes are reflected in his movies. In fact, he wanted to make an Earthsea movie before he made Nausicaa, but Le Guin wouldn?t release the rights at the time. Finally, after a mutual friend pointed out to them both how much they appreciated the other?s work, Miyazaki and Le Guin met and agreed to make an Earthsea Ghibli film. Huzzah! Except, hang on, Miyazaki-san then said he felt he was too old to direct the movie himself and wanted to use it as a chance for some of the younger Ghibli team members to show what they could do. Fair enough, one thing Ghibli has always done (like Pixar) is give people opportunities to shine. And so directing and writing duties went to his son Goro, but it appears that very little of the Miyazaki magic went with them.
The film tells the story of Prince Arren who murders his father and flees to the countryside where a pestilence is destroying crops and people alike. He meets archmage Ged who has come to the land to investigate the pestilence. On their journey they meet with a young girl called Teru who Arren has to rescue from slavers. The evil magician Kamu uses Arren & Teru in his plan to find immortality, but discovers all is not as it seems with the young people.
Dragons, magicians, mystical lands?all sounds very Ghibli, right? Well, on the surface it is Ghibli-as-usual. But while everything looks good, it is covering up much bigger problems. Goro is a competent technical director but he has no feel for characterisation. Where Ghibli succeeds is in producing vivid, varied and relatable characters that we fall in love with. But there is no single character in Earthsea where this happens. They are all one-dimensional?basic avatars for their roles in the plot. You never bond with Arren or Teru, or feel for them. There is no warmth to Ged the archmage. The evil magician Kamu is a strangely designed creature who neither terrifies or appeals. There is just no feeling of completeness to any of the characters, it is almost as if Goro had sketched them out and forgotten to finish them off for the final movie. It is the biggest failing in a Ghibli film where the audience demands characters they can take in to their hearts and fall under the spell of. Quite how Miyazaki-san or Suzuki-san allowed this to happen is unclear, but reports of disagreements between father and son have littered the trail of this movie.
The story itself, written by Goro and based very loosely on the third book in the Earthsea saga, also falls flat. The initial murder, the sudden appearance then disappearance of dragons, the issue of magicians losing their powers, the pestilence?none of these issues are resolved, and few if any are dealt with in any way. This is a jumbled and barely coherent plot that stumbles from minor event to minor event. Why is slavery allowed? Why is the Prince not being hunted? Just what is the purpose of the dragons? The problem is that Goro has assumed the audience know something about the Earthsea universe, and so he either fails to explain things, or he throws in random references that make no sense. Place names, events, people?these crop up but are not put in context. It really does make the film hard to follow and almost purposefully disrespectful. Inside the mess of a plot is an interesting idea of dual-personality, real-names, responsibility and loyalty which would make for a decent film IF it were told using relatable characters that we cared for. This isn?t Le Guin?s fault, as her Earthsea characters are all well-rounded, personable and written with depth. It is no surprise to me that she was less than happy with the finished movie. It is not the definitive Earthsea film she had hoped Ghibli would produce. To be honest it doesn?t feel like an Earthsea movie at all! The animation, while pretty, is not up to Ghibli?s usual standards. There is a lack of imagination, flair and beauty to it. The Blu-Ray does nothing to improve the flatness and lack of vibrancy. I found it hard to differentiate between this release and the previous DVD release in terms of visual or audio performance. The style is hand-drawn and credit for that. While Goro was making this film, his father was making good use of hand-drawn and digital techniques to make the far superior ?Howl?s Moving Castle?, and I can?t help but feel that too much of the company?s attention was with Howl than on Earthsea. With a new director and young animation talent the company needed to focus more resources on ensuring it was a success. Sadly it wasn?t, and the final film, while not terrible, certainly doesn?t hit any of the traditional Ghibli notes.
So, this is one for Ghibli completists, or the very curious. I?d avoid it if you are an Earthsea novels fan as it will infuriate you. The Blu-Ray comes with a decent selection of extras, including several behind the scenes docs which are actually very entertaining and informative. I?m not sure how to rate or recommend this release. As a Ghibli-ite I want to see them make money to invest in future films, so I should tell you to rush out and buy it, but I find myself hesitating as I just don?t think it is good enough a film to recommend. Certainly don?t make it you first Ghibli film?go for Spirited Away, Howl or Totoro?but also don?t judge Ghibli by this one film?s standard. Maybe by ignoring the Ghibli name we can look at this as a standard piece of animation fare, interesting on its own merits but nothing special? Well, whatever you make of the film, I am glad Hayao Miyazaki is still helming the majority of Ghibli films, and that the studio continues to support its young artists in their dreams. A little more quality control? Yes. A little less aspiration? Certainly not.