Dragons, rival wizards, and a runaway Prince, Studio Ghibli’s Tales from Earthsea has all of the ingredients to create awesome. Does the recipe headed up by the son of Hayao Miyazaki serve up cinema tastiness, or does it fall like a bad soufflé?
Writers: Goro Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa
Director: Goro Miyazaki
Date Released: 2006
Version Watched: English Dubbed
You would think that if your father was a world renowned filmmaker, instead of trying to follow in his footsteps, you might choose an entirely different career – accountant perhaps – but like his father Hayao, Goro Miyazaki had a desire to create films. Instead of taking on a modest project, Goro set out to create a film loosely based on the much loved, grandiose, world of Earthsea.
What It’s About
Prince Arren, in a rage state, murders his father. Arren flees, and encounters a wizard, Sparrowhawk, who has sensed an imbalance in the world, and is on a quest to set things right.
Sparrowhawk takes Arren under his wing (no pun intended), and the two spend some time on the farm of Sparrowhawk’s friend Tanar, and the girl Tanar cares for, Therru. At first Therru is antagonistic towards Arren, but eventually the two develop a friendship.
It’s discovered that the imbalance in the world is being caused by Cob, an old rival of Sparrowhawk’s. Cob kidnaps Arren in efforts to open the door between life and death. Eventually, Cob’s plans are thwarted, and balance is restored.
What It’s Not About
It’s not about dragons. The artwork of a dragon on the film poster/DVD cover set up certain expectations for me. The beginning of the film opens with a dragon battle. I thought, Sweet, this is going to be a fun adventure about warring dragons, or dragons battling with humans. I am all in. There were dragons at the very beginning and one dragon at the end, but other than that, the film was basically dragonless.
My favorite character in the film was Cob, the evil wizard/villain. He was the most interesting character, and what he wanted was clearly defined. He really had a look going on, kind of like if Severus Snape joined a punk band.
I imagined Cob as a young wizard trying out different evil wizard looks, 1980s montage style, relishing when he found just the right one. It got even better when he transformed into The Other Mother from Coraline.
Willem Defoe’s voice also added a special evil thrill to Cob’s character.
Sadly, none of the characters were ever fully developed. We find out that Arren’s rage episodes started because he was overcome by fear, it’s never explained what that fear is. Fear of ruling, or fear of never living up to his father (which would have been an interesting autobiographical twist)? A little more background could have made him more than an exasperating, emo boy.
We find out that Therru was abused, then abandoned by her family. When it’s revealed (spoiler alert!) that she is actually a dragon, it’s unclear if she was abandoned by her dragon family or her human family. Did she know she was a dragon, and if so what made her want to take human form? Unknown.
There is a brief dialogue establishing that Sparrowhawk and Cob have a history, but there isn’t a lot of background on their past relationship. There are so many potentially cool characters, but as there isn’t a lot of character development implemented; instead, they all felt very shallow.
There are a lot of plot threads. A Prince who has developed uncontrollable rage episodes kills his father, then stricken with guilt and grief, flees his kingdom. There are rival wizards. One bent on revenge, the other determined to finish a job he thought had been accomplished. There’s an abused girl, with a secret. It’s difficult to determine which thread is the main story. It’s all a bit of a jumble, and none of the plots have satisfying explanations or endings.
There is a main theme, oh yes there is. It is that life has no meaning without death. Normally Studio Ghibli is precious with its dialogue, but in Tales from Eathsea there are numerous, long-winded speeches, determined to beat you over the head with the main message.
I am by no means a creative genius, but if I had to fix the script, I would have shored up the plot by making the wizards the main focus. I would have opened with scenes of Sparrowhawk’s intended, original defeat of Cob that lead to Cob’s vow to get revenge on Sparrowhawk. Then you could follow Sparrowhawk as he goes on a quest to defeat Cob once and for all, while he picks up Arren, the run-away Prince along the way. I think giving the plot a singular focus would have helped quite a bit.
I will admit that I knew beforehand that Tales from Earthsea is a much maligned Studio Ghibli film, but I love Studio Ghibli, so I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. I went in with an open mind. I wanted to love it.
It’s hard to follow in anyone’s footsteps, particularly a parent’s, so I give Goro Miyazaki credit for trying. I think the most disappointing thing about Tales from Earthsea is that it could have been great, but in its overly ambitious goal to be epic, it lost the things that make Studio Ghibli films amazing, like focused storytelling, and well-developed characters. At the start, it had all of the ingredients for an impressive fantasy treat, but in the end, it just fell flat.