Even now, more than a year after the announcement, the world continues to reel from the news of Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement. His swan song was the well-received and beautifully haunting The Wind Rises. Yet it wasn’t the first time he hinted at bowing out. Of all the animators out there, it was thought that another Miyazaki would keep the studio banner waving.
In fact, this particular Studio Ghibli film is directed by his son Goro. We first took a look at Tales From Earthsea years ago, and we were really hoping that now, after a third outing, it would have grown on us. Considering the talent involved, even on the dubbed end of this stunning Blu-Ray release, the ambitions still overshadow the end product.
Admittedly it’s so very hard to think about Goro’s work (who is not, repeat not a professional animator) and not compare him to his father. Yet while Goro didn’t grow up with a drafting pencil in his hand, he did manage to pick up a thing or two just by osmosis. Also, there are sparks of his lineage either on the very edges of each striking animation cell or front and center. Now it’s unfortunante that Earthsea didn’t reach its full potential, but it was still a turning point for the studio and the film would, to a degree, become a template for forthcoming features. That’s got to count for something.
Adapted from Ursula K. Le Guin‘s Earthsea series, the film tells the tale of a teenage Prince on a quest for redemption, and while Earthsea touts dragons, wizards and magic, it is one of the most ho-hum tales in the Ghibli catalog. Sadly, it feels as sub-par, and the slow pace continually keeps this film from really getting started. Unfortunately Tales From Earthsea, for any number of reasons (budget, talent, time, there’s no one factor to pin this on), has a peculiar and amateur feel to it. One could forgive animation shortcomings, but not the threadbare story. Being that this is cherry-picked form nearly half a dozen different elements in the Earthsea series, it’s clear there was just too much material to contend with.
There are moments where Earthsea is on the cusp of breaking past the mundane and hints that something exciting is about to happen…but it never truly does. Even the exceptional music, by composer Tamiya Terashima, which is heavily derivative of Miklós Rózsa (no complaints here) tries really hard to be the crutch for the hobbling narrative. While it is sweeping, it is really wasted on this story. But of the features on this Blu-ray edition (from the original DVD release), the hour-long look at the score is essential for any music lover.
Aside from being tonally drab (and taking itself way too serious), some of the animation does shine, yet even casual anime fans will note that it is merely passable as far as Ghibli standards go. Trying to be completely fair, the flying sequences, dragons and landscape shots are very, very impressive and they do the studio proud. It’s just a pity that the pacing, story and character development (perhaps the biggest let down) don’t flush out the visuals and even at 115 minutes (fyi, it feels longer) the film still can’t manage a satisfying resolution.
All that said, Earthsea is solid rental, just not a blind buy – even for the die-hard Ghibli devotees. Goro Miyazaki shows promise juggling the dense source material, the message about the importance of life (which is heard loud and clear), and weaving the familiar Ghibli charm even though he’s not practiced waving the wand. Still, Hayao has been a huge fan of the Earthsea novels and, having wanted to make an adaptation more than 20 years earlier (fun fact: he made Nausicaä instead) this finally got to see the light of day. For what it’s worth, it’s comforting that his dream was nearly realized by Goro. Just don’t expect a sequel.