In 2003, Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli enchanted audiences everywhere with the release of the beguiling Spirited Away. Now they return with Tales from Earthsea, based on Ursula Le Guin’s classic Earthsea novels, set in a world of magic and dragons, where the dark shadows inside people can take on lives of their own. But despite the rich source material, the film fails to recapture the magic of either the books or the Ghibli’s past successes.
The story follows young Prince Arren, on the run after the sudden and inexplicable murder of his father. Lost in a desert his life is saved by the Archmage Sparrowhawk, who is searching for the cause of a disruption in the delicate balance of the world. Together, they confront the evil Lord Cob who is on a meglomaniac quest for eternal life. With the mysterious quiet Therru, can they restore harmony to the dying world of Earthsea?
The film is not a direct adaptation of any of the original Earthsea books and suffers for it: Le Guin herself has expressed “disappointment” with the movie’s tendency towards violence as well as the use of a villain to drive the plot, rather than the more complex issues of the source material.
Lacking the usual children’s-fantasy pattern of an ordinary hero brought into an extraordinary world, the story is initially quite confusing, with various threads introduced and then forgotten about until much later. Things grind to a near-halt in the middle, and there are only precious moments of action to punctuate the long bucolic interludes. With a running time of nearly two hours viewers will either find the gentle pace bewitching or stupifying.
Frequent mulling on the intertwined nature of life and death doesn’t help matters: the careful philosophy of the novels has been childishly simplified, and relevant environmental themes – the disruption of nature by man – are skimmed over. The few twists along the way are ill-explained and viewers with no knowledge of the source material may come out confused.
The artwork is up to the usual high standards of Studio Ghibli, although not as stunning as previous releases: there’s less colour, fewer background details and the distinctive fluid style has been reigned in for a more naturalistic look. And while some moments are awe-inspiring – reflective floors, delicate changes of lighting, and a bustling town – the whole lacks the hypnotic grace that made Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away so popular world-wide.
Tales from Earthsea is the first film by Hayao’s son Goro and suffers from the uncertain hand of a new director. Given a more fleshed-out story and more atmospheric artwork this could have been a real jewel. Instead, while still a beautiful and warm-hearted film, this is not as good as Ghibli gets.