I wanted to give Goro Miyazaki the benefit of the doubt.
Goro’s the son of acclaimed animation director Hayao Miyazaki, so comparisons are inevitable. The elder Miyazaki naturally adapted to directing as part of his career track; Goro, a construction consultant by trade, had to be talked into doing his first film, "Tales From Earthsea," the lure being the chance to adapt some of his favorite books as a teen.
‘Tales From Earthsea’
Hayao Miyazaki’s "Spirited Away" won the Academy Award for best animated feature in 2003. "Earthsea," only now getting its Hawaii release, earned the Japanese equivalent of a Razzie for worst film and worst director of 2006.
Ursula K. Le Guin, author of the "Earthsea" books, loved Hayao’s work and gave Studio Ghibli the right to adapt them based on that. She later posted an essay on her website expressing disappointment, calling the final product incoherent, unnecessarily violent and untrue to the spirit of her work.
So I went into an advance screening of "Earthsea" this week, wanting to find some redeeming quality to the film, something that said, "OK, this is what Goro Miyazaki wanted to say. I get it now."
I’m pleased to report I found that quality: His establishing shots of windswept fields, towns and harbors at dusk and night would make lovely paintings.
But about an hour into the film — roughly half its running time — one can recall those lingering landscapes more than the plot, and that’s not a good sign. Pacing and plot prove to be the dual downfalls of "Earthsea," a by-the-numbers Ghibli production that has the looks but lacks a soul.
The story focuses on Prince Arren, a teen who’s first seen stabbing his father. Why this happens is never sufficiently explained — as we slowly discover, explanations for many of the film’s elements aren’t exactly forthcoming — but it’s enough to launch Arren on a journey of discovery. He’s joined by Lord Archmage Sparrowhawk, who is trying to determine what’s upsetting the balance of … umm … The Balance.
And so Arren and Sparrowhawk walk around, have a few vague expository conversations and stare thoughtfully at the pretty landscapes. Other characters are gradually introduced: Tenar, a former priestess whom Sparrowhawk once saved; Therru, Tenar’s adopted daughter; Cob, an evil wizard who now threatens The Balance; and Hare, leader of a band of slave traders. They, too, walk around and have vague expository conversations.
The problem with those chats, particularly for someone like me who has never read any of the "Earthsea" books, is that many of them assume a certain level of knowing what happened in those books. Concepts like "real names" and "shadows" pop in and out with little explanation, and yet play a major role in understanding the film.
By the time the audience has just about given up trying to figure out anything, the film switches to over-the-top action mode with the heroes in Cob’s clutches and Therru left to rescue them.
In the end, the film tries to please everyone but ends up pleasing no one. Ghibli fans will hate it because it lacks any compelling spark. Casual viewers will hate it because some things don’t make any sense. And Le Guin fans will hate it because of the liberties it takes with the original work.
A final note: The version of the film shown at the advance screening featured the original Japanese dialogue with English subtitles, while the version opening today is dubbed by actors including Timothy Dalton, Mariska Hargitay and Willem Dafoe.