James Helsby

LRE #34: Tales from Earthsea

Decrease Font Size Increase Font Size Text Size Print This Page

Little Red Envelope

In my mailbox this week:
Tales from Earthsea

Release Year: 2006

Staring: Matt Levin, Timothy Dalton, Willem Dafoe, Cheech Marin

I am a big fan of Studio Ghibli films, and when I was walking through Costco the other week, I saw one I had never even heard of before. I was ashamed of myself. Tales from Earthsea is a different sort of Ghibli film.

The reason I was even looking in the bin was that I clearly saw Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind staring back at me. And with the chance to pick up Nausicaa on Bluray, I just couldn’t pass it up.

But right behind it was another Ghibli film that, honestly, I hadn’t heard of before. It was odd for me to have passed it up, and I seriously have no idea how Earthsea slipped through the cracks for me.

The strange thing about it though, is that Nausicaa isn’t actually a Ghibli film. It was made before the studio was founded, and as such, is only retrospectively Ghibli property. Much the same was that Lupin III: Castle Cagliostro (Hayao Miyazaki’s first directorial film) was not a Ghibli either.

There are actually on 19 Studio Ghibli films, and many of the best ones were before the studio was officially founded. The list is; Castle in the Sky (’86), Grave of the Fireflies (’88), My Neighbor Totoro (’88), Kiki’s Delivery Service (’89), Only Yesterday(’91), Porco Rosso (’92), Ocean Waves (’93), Pom Poko (’94), Whispers of the Heart (’95), Princess Mononoke (’97), My Neighbours the Yamadas (’99), Spirited Away (’01), The Cat Returns (’02), Howl’s Moving Castle (’04), Tales from Earthsea (’06), Ponyo (’08), The Borrower Arrietty (’10), Kokurikozaka Kara (’11), and The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (future).

Of those, I have not see the 3 most recent (one still pending production). I eat up Ghibli films, but what I usually associate as an art style of Hayao Miyazaki, I have now learned to be a style better defined as pure Ghibli.

Ghibli films, and specifically Hayao Miyazaki films, always feature a strong female character. The male characters are secondary and supporting to the female lead. But Earthsea was perhaps the first Ghibli film I have seen that shifted this roll…. Slightly. While the ‘strength’ was still contained within the female character, the lead was quite obviously a male. The closest film that I can think of that is like this, is probably Princess Mononoke, with Ashitaka being the lead, and San being the strength.

Porco Rosso was also very similar, with Rosso being the lead, but the strength being either in Fio or Gina.

But Ghibli movies also have a very particular artistic style, and from the moment you see a character on screen, you know full well that Ghibli made it. But that art style, I had always associated with Hayao Miyazki particularly, so it is interesting to see Hayao’s son Goro (director of Tales from Earthsea, and the pending release, Kokurikozaka Kara). The style is unique, and I don’t think could ever be duplicated by any other production house.

Tales from Earthsea is an adaptation of the Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea book series, with this film focusing on the story of Prince Arren (Matt Levin), who attacks and potentially murder’s his father, in a fit of fear. Arren flees to the wilds of the world, and is soon happened upon by Sparrowhawk (Timothy Dalton).

Sparrowhawk is a powerful sorcerer, whom we later find out is the ‘arch-Mage’, the most powerful wizard and leader.  Arren, who accompanies Sparrowhawk on his journey, happens upon a Therru as she is being cornered by slave traders looking to capture her. Arren fights to save her, but reveals in the process that he has no care for his own life; something that infuriates Therru who believes that all life is sacred.

As the story continues, we find that Arren harbors demons within his soul (figuratively speaking, perhaps.) and that Cobb and evil wizard wishes to use Arren to gain the secrets of immortality.

Visually, the film is amazing. But it is the lack of detail that I found so intriguing. The background scenes all seem to be painting with water color, and are washed and sometimes completely devoid of the intricate details you might come to expect. They are truly beautiful works of art, that you can imagine being hung on a wall almost more easily than you can stand seeing them contained within the frame of your screen.

The character designs are pure Ghibli (as I have come to find out). Arren is a young boy with dark hair, Sparrowhawk (whom i mistakenly identified as Liam Neeson, rather than Dalton) looks younger for his age, than he likely should. The smoothness and lack of detail in the characters is more enjoyable to see than I would have thought for as modern of a film as this is. Honestly, character design for Ghibli hasn’t changed one bit since the day’s of Kiki and Totoro; something that I find comforting.

The story is grand in scope, and honestly it seemed a little hollow. I understood everything that was happening, but it seemed like elements needed more exposition than they were given. I am sure this is something that would be totally cleared up by re-reading the book series, but seeing as how it has been since I was in 4th grade, I don’t know if I really want to just yet.

I often found myself wondering just why something was happening. Particularly, I wondered where the hell the dragons were throughout the whole film. You see them in the beginning, but during the course they are barely even discussed. Considering the cover-art, and the opening scene, I would have imagined more dragon action.

There is really only one thing that I can fault the film for. Stupidly, in my opinion, they decided to cast Willem Dafoe as Cob. I enjoy Dafoe, he is a great actor, but the problem is that Cob… Is a woman. Drawn as a woman. In the Japanese version, voiced by a woman (Yuko Tanaka). But this is probably more of an adaptation issue than anything else. Cob, in the book series, is a male character, although to my understanding of the book, androgynous.

I could be wrong. But Dafoe has a very masculine voice, and hearing him try to feminize it seemed odd. It would have been better to cast someone who could either be male, with a feminine voice (think Michael Cera) or female with a male voice (think Bea Arthur).

But over all the film was amazing. I can’t believe that I let it slip through unwatched for essentially 5 years. With it’s recent release on Bluray I will for sure be adding it to my building collection. The film is more violent than I would have expected, and unfortunately it is much too violent for my 2 year old to be able to enjoy with us.

How painful was it:  Started at 11pm, and stayed up till 130am. It wasn’t painful at all.

Rating: 7/10. Not as good as Mononoke, but definitely worth watching if you like Ghibli films.

The Wife’s Retort: Loved it, but I didn’t like the creepy black eyes. Black eyes are just wrong.

Leave us a Comment