Sunday, 16 November 2014

Studio Ghibli 'Tales from Earthsea' Review

‘Tales from Earthsea’ is the black sheep of the Studio Ghibli family. Currently holding a 41% on Rotten Tomatoes, ‘Earthsea’ is the worst rated film made by the studio. Is this rating fair? Or has ‘Tales from Earthsea’ been unfairly treated? It would be very hard to entirely defend ‘Tales from Earthsea’ as it has quite a few issues. That being said I don’t believe the film is entirely without merit either.

The fundamental issue with ‘Tales from Earthsea’ is summed up in this English title. The ‘Earthsea’ series of stories spanned six books when this film was created. ‘Tales from Earthsea’ is an amalgamation based on stories from four of these books. The decision to tell several ‘Tales’ in ‘Tales from Earthsea’ creates a whole host of problems with the film, problems that a single focussed narrative would have fixed.

Who is the lead character in ‘Tales from Earthsea’? Now the smart money is with Arren, the runaway prince whom we follow throughout the film. Arren would be the sensible choice but he doesn’t really push the narrative forward at all. Sparrowhawk, conversely, is very proactive and seems to drive the majority of the narrative. Now Arren completes a character journey but he is not alone in doing that. Therru arguably changes far more throughout the film and is also far more relatable to the audience, is she the lead? Each of these characters could and in the books does, drive a narrative by themselves. Attempting to focus on three characters simultaneously causes the audience to focus on none of them.

This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if the world of ‘Earthsea’ was more accessible. We as an audience needed to be told what was happening around us, we needed a likable protagonist to experience the world via and we didn’t get one. An attempt was made to make Arren this character but the likeable part of the equation was abandoned.

Within the opening minutes Arren murders his kind father for seemingly no reason, before going on the run. For the first hour of the movie we get no explanation of why he did this or how it made him feel. For all we know he could have killed his dad because he enjoys killing, we don’t know! How are we meant to relate to a character that we don’t understand? Now as the movie goes on we discover that Arren doesn’t understand why he killed his father. How are we meant to relate to a character that can’t relate to himself?

The first hour of this film is incredibly hard to defend at all. Nothing really happens to drive the story for the first half of ‘Tales from Earthsea’ and I don’t understand why. We get almost no character development and very little plot. We just spend an hour being vaguely shown a world by characters we don’t understand and in the case of Arren, don’t like. Killing his father aside, Arren is shown to be rude, aggressive and stupid. Why would we care about what happens to him?

A lot of the issues in this film could have been fixed if it had used more time to explain the world and the characters. To waste an hour of you two hour film doing nothing is utterly confusing. This film has all the issues of a short running time and none of the advantages of the quite long running time it actually has. We get long segments of clunky exposition explaining the basics of the world followed by painfully long scenes where nothing happens. Key concepts of the film are never properly explained, such as the use of real names and the nature of the dragons. The conclusion of the film so heavily relies on these two ideas that they should probably have been explained more, or at all.

‘Tales from Earthsea’ has a real issue with scale. The evil wizard Cob just happens to live within walking distance of Tenar’s farm? Her farm in the middle of nowhere just happens to be placed within walking distance of the giant Hort Town? This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if we didn’t see the characters keep easily moving between these locations. We are given constant reminders about how big the world is but we are only shown three important locations that happen to be next to each other. Once we lose the scale of the world we lose the scale of the characters. Sparrowhawk’s extensive journey around the world could have taken him a week for all we know. Arren’s distant kingdom might be an hour away.

Now some of the criticism for this film is due to the suggestion that it has stolen or is reusing ideas from other Studio Ghibli films. The two films it most obviously lifts from are ‘Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind’ and ‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky’. Now giving ‘Tales from Earthsea’ the benefit of the doubt, I suspect that these resemblances may be somewhat explainable as more than simple theft. 

Hayao Miyazaki wanted to adapt the ‘Earthsea’ books for a very long time. When he couldn’t get the rights to the series, many of the themes and ideas he had developed fed into ‘Nausicaa’. I suspect to some extent some of the ideas also fed into ‘Laputa’, what with the two films being developed back to back.

The real question is, are the ideas being reused the original ideas intended for Miyazaki’s ‘Earthsea’ film? Did Goro Miyazaki and the rest of Studio Ghibli make a conscious effort to use these ideas again for that very reason? I suspect that any original notes of Miyazaki’s they could find were used as inspiration, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the case. Now assuming that this is what happened, why would they do this? Did they do it out of respect or out of some kind of desperate hope of reflected glory? Hiring Miyazaki’s son to direct would suggest the latter.

For whatever reason this ‘referencing’ is still a bizarre creative decision. Even if these ideas were originally intended for another film, they’ve still been used elsewhere. It’s also a bizarre decision since a lot of effort has been made by Goro to inject his own personality into the film, why focus on his dad’s personality so much also?

Another criticism that people tend to throw at this movie is that the creator of the ‘Earthsea’ books, Ursula Le Guin, hates it. Now I have very little pity towards Le Guin on this. She had Hayao Miyazaki attempt to gain the rights to adapt her books back in his prime. Le Guin turned Miyazaki down without even watching his work and he went on to do other stuff. She eventually bothered to watch one of his films twenty years later and changed her mind, giving him permission. She then discovered that Hayao Miyazaki wanted to retire and agreed to let his son, Goro Miyazaki, direct it instead.

Le Guin’s main complaint is that ‘Tales from Earthsea’ wasn’t a brilliant Hayao Miyazaki film… Maybe she should have thought about that twenty years earlier when she was turning him down, sight unseen. Maybe, heaven forbid, she should have considered that Goro Miyazaki might make a different film, what with him being a different person and all. I appreciate that she feels her work and her fans were disrespected but she was the one who agreed to it.

Now I’ve been pretty negative towards ‘Tales from Earthsea’ so far. That’s primarily because it isn’t that great a movie on the whole. That being said I do like quite a few things about it.

The first half of the film is absolutely terrible but the second half is actually pretty decent. At approximately the halfway point ‘Tales from Earthsea’ remembers that it has characters and bothers to introduce them to the audience. Therru is particular is extensively fleshed out and becomes a very likable character.

The main villain Cob is very effective, both in writing and design. Even Arren’s horrible personality is salvaged to a certain extent in this second half. Arren’s battle, both in mind and body against Cob is nicely handled. In particular I really like the rising fear in Cob. Cob’s dream of immortality and the realisation of his impending death are really nicely handled, making him one of the stronger Ghibli villains.

Visually speaking ‘Tales from Earthsea’ is one of the most attractive of the Studio Ghibli films. Where Hayao focussed on light colours and overall composition, Goro focusses on blacks and browns and fine details. Goro seems to have a natural understanding of colour and how to use it, creating high contrast, highly dynamic images in the process. 

Surfaces have incredibly realistic reflections, lights have real warmth. The design work that moves away from the Ghibli house style is also very strong in ‘Tales from Earthsea’. The dragons, in particular, are very distinct and show Goro’s aesthetic sensibilities perfectly.

The sound design and music are also very strong. The sound design manages what the script doesn’t and sells the world. The way the wind can be heard to wrap around the objects is incredible. The scraping echoes and whispering winds help sell a sense of three-dimensional depth to the world that few films manage to do. The music is also extremely good and adds a further sense of a larger world, one with different cultures and instruments.

So ‘Tales from Earthsea’ has more than its fair share of issues. That being said I find it very hard to truly dislike it. ‘Tales from Earthsea’ suffers from the creative decisions of a first time director but it also shows the promise of a man with a distinct vision for his animations. Goro Miyazaki shows with this film that he has an understanding, albeit undeveloped, of the darkness in humanity, one that Hayao shied away from. Hopefully Goro will have the chance to develop his voice further as ‘Tales from Earthsea’ shows glimpses of genius, even if they are almost entirely limited to the second half of the film.

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