Everybody loves Studio Ghibli. From classic nostalgia flicks like My Neighbor Totoro (1988) to award winners like Spirited Away (2001), Studio Ghibli has made a lot of smash hits commercially and critically.
But what about the Ghibli movies that aren’t so good?
In 2006, Ghibli released Tales of Earthsea, a film adaptation of Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea cycle directed by Goro Miyazaki. The film had mixed reactions, with some praising the animation and others panning the story. Currently, the film holds a 46% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the worst rating of any Studio Ghibli film. Because this social isolation is probably driving me slowly insane, I decided to check it out. How bad could it be?
Son of the world-renowned Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, etc.), director Goro Miyazaki started out his career in landscaping and construction before becoming director of the Ghibli Museum and landing positions in advising for other Ghibli productions. His first feature assignment as director was to adapt the massively popular and complicated Earthsea cycle for film\; reportedly, the two Miyazakis did not speak to each other during production.
Tales of Earthsea (2006) is a very pretty movie. The beautiful scenery, lovely colors, and eye-catching backgrounds are soothing, and the slow pace feels like a lullaby. The English voice dubbing is incredible, and includes a truly inspired performance by Willem Dafoe as the villain, Cob. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t have the same attention to detail as the visuals, and the slow pace is dissonant to the frantic plot.
Tales wants to spin an adventure of personal growth and magic in a well trod fantasy setting, but dawdles without purpose for much of its two hour runtime. Ten minutes in, we seem to have a fairly basic mystery-magic-adventure story\; the world of Earthsea is slowly losing its magic, dragons have been spotted for the first time in centuries, and Prince Arren has just murdered his father and run off into the wilderness. Arren then meets sorcerer Sparrowhawk, who takes him under his wing as he searches the world for the drain on magic. At this point I thought, “wow, maybe people were exaggerating when they said this was the worst Ghibli film! This isn’t that bad at all!” I would soon be proven wrong.
Here I bring in a quote from Hayao Miyazaki: “You see, what drives animation is the will of the characters. You don’t depict fate, you depict will.” Tales of Earthsea’s characters are puppeteered by the plot, lacking will and falling flat. Main character Arren has the worst case of moved-by-the-plot-not-his-motivations-itis. As I mentioned, he kills his father and steals his sword in the first few minutes. Ooh, I thought, this will be a fun mystery to sleuth out. Maybe he killed his father for the sword! I can’t wait to see what his motivations were and how that will affect the rest of the film! I was sorely disappointed (notice a theme?). As he confesses to new friend/foil/potential love interest Therru forty minutes later, he sometimes just goes berserk, and his dad just happened to be there. While this is not a terrible reason, Arren reveals he has no real motivation. Paf! His character falls over like a cardboard cutout. He becomes two dimensional.
About midway through, Sparrowhawk and Arren make a stop at sorceress Tenar’s farm, where she lives with Therru. I really, really liked the farming scenes. I loved the gossipy neighbors, the idyllic quietness, the romanticized mundanity. And yet, the scenes didn’t work at all\; they seemed only to exist for the film’s themes to be hammered in. “Don’t forget,” Tales of Earthsea screams out, “life is great and worth living!” While this isn’t a bad message, everything that seemed to be happening was forgotten in favor of farming. The plot dies at Tenar’s farm.
By the climax of the film, I felt like an intrepid hiker who had just braved the wilderness for several hours only to come across a view of a trash-sorting plant. The plot stuttering for themes only gets worse. To save Arren from dark wizard Cob’s brainwashing, Therru becomes a mouthpiece for the film’s themes and grinds the plot to a halt to pontificate on the importance of life and death. Somehow the most important and exciting part of the film drags on. Honestly, I was checking how much more I would have to sit through.
Therru also becomes a dragon. I am still not sure why.
Overall, I cannot say that Tales of Earthsea is a bad movie\; it has all the elements of a good movie, but falls short in execution. Somehow, there is both too much and too little going on. Instead of seamlessly mixing themes, plot, and character together, each ingredient is stuck in clumps and leaves a messy aftertaste. This feels like someone’s first ever film, and the script reads very much like a first draft that needed some trimming before going into production. The bad elements outweighed the good.