Monday, March 21, 2011

Does Studio Ghibli's "Tales from Earthsea" Deserve the Bad Rap It Seems to Have?

When I first heard Studio Ghibli was making "Tales from Earthsea," I was excited. I fondly remembered reading Ursula K. Le Guin's series of books. Ghibli, of course, makes perhaps the most wonderful animated films ever. Hmm, not perhaps. Yes, as a whole, Ghibli is the best. Though mostly due to the singular genius of Hayao Miyazaki, the Ghibli films by other directors that I have seen (Grave of the Fireflies, Whisper of the Heart and The Cat Returns) are all amazing in their own way. So as much as I believe Miyazaki to be a genius (so much so that my dissertation may be focused on him), the Ghibli magic may be that the production company he founded has a singular vision that works.

Unfortunately, reviews of "Tales from Earthsea" were troubling. It is directed by Goro Miyazaki, Hayao's son, and apaprently this caused problems - between son and father, but also with how the film was received by the core Ghibli fans. LeGuin herself - who had originally agreed to allow the making of the film as long as Hayao was at the helm - also found faults with the film. I will admit to not having read the details of any spat between father and son. I do believe Goro was a landscaper before being given this opportunity, though, so I assumed criticisms of the film were going to be valid. I trust LeGuin and have loved almost every word she has written that I have read.

However, I also know that film is a different animal. Faithful adaptations of books that make good films are not the easiest of projects to complete.

While recently re-watching as many Ghibli films as I could in order to ponder whether I could devote a dissertation to them (without ruining my appreciation), I was pleased to see "Tales from Earthsea" was being released. Only on Disney DVD though, which is just wrong. I recently read Miyazaki's "Starting Point," wherein it seems that early in his career Hayao was not too thrilled with Disney. I have been looking for information about how he felt when Ghibli and Disney formed a partnership - did his feelings change? I haven't yet found any comments, but I might guess he has simply stopped mentioning Disney when he doesn't have to. Maybe because Disney did not see fit to release this film to any theaters, where these films really need to be seen.

But that decision may have been based on fan's early and bad reviews. It's a shame, because this is another glorious Ghibli film that would have been that much more wonderful on the big screen.

First, is a bit darker than previous films. As the major theme is about the shadow side in all of us, this is to be expected. It includes a scene of graphic violence that I cannot recall seeing in previous Ghibli films, as well as some adult to child violence. These instances were shocking only because it is not what one expects from Ghibli. In the context of the narrative, however, they were utterly appropriate. The villain in the film - again, a true villain not often seen in Ghibli works - was for me one of the most disturbing villains I have seen anywhere in a while. The age for this film is rather higher than it was for "Ponyo."

I have also noticed criticism in some parts that the animation in "Earthsea" is not up to Ghibli standards. Specifically, some of the spectacular backgrounds we expect to see aren't present. I can't say I agree. Not only does the film look great, some of the animation is really outstanding. Toward the end, when the roof of some of the stonework is collapsing, and individual bricks are quaking and falling apart, I'd say is some of the best animation I've seen.

Some are criticizing the story, suggesting it is routine fantasy genre, or else that it's unclear and hard to follow. I found it to be a powerful story - truly mythic undertones spiking up through the disguise of placid narrative. I actually thought at one point that it reminded me of Carl Dreyer's films, which are paced notoriously slowly, languidly, but in service of powerful emotion.

Scenes in which Arren gets engulfed in what looks like black, oily water - also calling to mind the flooding water in "Ponyo" - hit a little too close to the heart, considering the ongoing crisis in Japan. This only adds to the tense drama that slowly unfolds in "Earthsea."

The calm demeanor of the character Sparrowhawk is matched here only by his genuine humility. When he apologizes to the boy Arren for an incorrect decision, choosing to leave him alone when there was every reason to believe the boy might need help, it is a moment rarely seen in any film - an adult apologizing for wrongheaded inaction. The powerful role Sparrowhawk owns makes it an even more touching scene - a leader with actual humility.

There was one moment when I was confused near the end. That confusion passed quickly, though, as I brought my own imagination to bear on what I thought had just happened. Too often everything in a film is telegraphed - we know what happened, or we are told how to feel. My ability to bring my own metaphor into this moment of confusion was a crowning achievement for a magnificent and powerfully emotional film.

I can understand Ursula LeGuin's criticisms. From what I recall of her wonderful words, this was not her story. But the Ghibli fan's outcry I don't understand at all. All in all, I'd say the son of the genius made a rather impressive debut.


Emma said...

I may have to watch this now, the reviews did indeed put me off. And I second Hayao's feelings towards Disney which is why I think any Ghibli movie should be watched with translations and not dubbed over with American interpretation.

I'm still waiting for a review on "A Town Called Panic."

Joe Muszynski said...

and there you go.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen Earthsea yet, but I will remember your review when I do eventually see it.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you that visuals and animation was great probably some of the best stuff out there when it comes to detail and color, BUT You are naive about the film and make very weak points in trying to defend the film. Anyone with some common logic could understand that this film is flawed and needed to be more developed. Even if we were given the proper background that it deserved it lacked the transitioning of each character to make sense of it all. Honestly, I believe you have some favoritism or bias to Studio Ghibli, and are very blind in seeing that this film makes sense to one person (Goro Miyazaki) and unless you are the person explain to me and everyone else the storyline and meaning of the film. In all essence, films are to be understood by the interpretation of their makers. It's Goro's first film, so well cut him some slack and hope he learns from his mistakes.

theverycold said...

I was very disappointed with Tales from Earthsea. I am not familiar with the books, so my criticism is for the movie only. While the animation and city scenes were beautiful, a lot of the character development and motivations seemed flimsy. Why didn't Arren just have stolen the sword without killing him? Why is Therru is so pissy about someone who came to her defense? Why can't Cob just use his magic to contact sparrowhawk himself instead of wasting manpower capturing a woman? Does everybody have two names? Was Tenar a witch or a talented herbalist? When and how will Arren atone for his sins? How can he be so jolly at the end of the film when he has to accept he committed cold-blooded murder of the leader of a kingdom?

I had no emotional connection to the important characters and I kept waiting for something to happen. Yes there's a cool moment at the end, but there's no buildup. Compare this to spirited away. I was pleasantly surprised and excited at the end of the latter and not the former.

Michaela said...

Thank you for this wonderful review - I was very confused at the bad reviews as well. I saw the movie before I read the reviews and it was really powerful to me, and seeing all the bad reviews really dampened my spirits. If people didn't know it wasn't directed by Hiyao Miyazaki, they probably would have liked it. I didn't do any research, and thought it was Hiyao's movie the first time I watched it.
At any rate, your review is refreshing :) Thank you