NOTE: The screening of Tales from Earthsea I attended was the original Japanese-language version with English subtitles. The version that will be released domestically is dubbed in English and uses voice work from the likes of Timothy Dalton, Mariska Hargitay, Willem Dafoe and Cheech Marin. The following review is in reference to the version I saw, not the English-dubbed version that will be released in the States.
I had high hopes, but I wasn’t sure what to expect from Goro Miyazaki’s Tales from Earthsea. Goro is the son of the highly awarded Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki (Ponyo, Spirited Away) and Earthsea serves as his writing and directorial debut. Based on the six-book “Earthsea” fantasy series by Ursula Le Guin, Goro co-wrote the script with fellow first time screenwriter Keiko Niwa, and unfortunately their filmmaking infancy shows. Tales from Earthsea is moderately impressive to look at, but the film itself is a rather boring and lifeless slog. There’s very little energy to this fantasy tale and certainly very little fun to be had.
The story begins with Arren (voiced by Junichi Okada), a young prince of Earthsea who’s run away from home after unwittingly killing his father as if possessed by something sinister. It’s after this he meets Sparrowhawk, a sorcerer in search of what’s causing a recent imbalance in the land as livestock have fallen ill, crops are suffering and dragons have been seen fighting.
A conflict of life versus death and the balance of the two becomes the story’s focal point as the destinies of Sparrowhawk, Arren and a young girl by the name of Therru (voiced by Aoi Teshima) result in a face off against the evil Cob (voiced by Yuko Tanaka) in an effort to restore balance to Earthsea.
Obviously, the story is not the problem here. The story itself has weight, the problem is the execution and the downtrodden nature of every frame. Be it slave trappers, a guilty conscience, sad songs or dying livestock, there is absolutely no joy in Earthsea for the duration of the film. One thing I’ve always loved about Hayao Miyazaki’s films is the serious nature of his stories and yet the light-hearted manner with which he presents them.
Earthsea‘s lack of reprieve from the melancholy story just puts you in a funk. Things are bad for Arren. He’s lost and confused. When he meets Therru you think something will happen there, perhaps some childhood bonding. No, she shuns him. Sparrowhawk continues to ramble mumbo-jumbo and the only character with any kind of personality is Cob’s slave-collecting minion Hare (voiced by Teruyuki Kagawa), but he simply exists to laugh and be evil, not to add any measure of levity to the gloomy story.
Admittedly, there is a moment near the end that does give you a jolt of pride for Arren, but it isn’t nearly enough to make up for a movie that runs just shy of two hours long and takes itself way too seriously.
Tales from Earthsea plays as an obvious first effort. It feels tight and constrained as if Miyazaki didn’t want to let the story get away from him. With future projects I suspect he’ll loosen his own reins and give himself more freedom to have fun with both his story and his characters. It’s okay to deliver a rather depressing film, but without moments of lightheartedness you end up with a spiritless story that doesn’t seem to have a heartbeat.