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.