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  Tales from Earthsea Here be dragons
Year: 2007
Director: Goro Miyazaki
Stars: Timothy Dalton, Mariska Hargitay
Genre: Animated, Fantasy, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 2 votes)
Review: While anime fans eagerly await Hayao Miyazaki’s forthcoming film, Ponyo, Studio Ghibli’s latest opus marks the directorial debut of his son, Goro. A few years ago, Hallmark adapted Ursula Le Guin’s first Earthsea novel into a mini-series, starring Danny Glover. Ghibli have adapted the third, wherein Le Guin’s older, wiser, wizard hero Ged (voiced in English by underrated Bond, Timothy Dalton, and in Japanese by yakuza film icon, Bunta Sugawara) befriends young Prince Arren, a tormented soul fleeing the darkness that drove him to murder his father. Following numerous misadventures amidst a magical world of dragons and sorcery, Ged leads Arren to the rural tranquillity of Tenar’s farm. Here he meets Therru, a mysterious girl with a scarred face and a secret past. The youngsters grow close, but face the threat of slimy sorcerer, Cob.

Tales from Earthsea is a handsomely crafted, stirring, fantasy adventure, but drew criticism over decisions to alter characters Le Guin wrote as black, and over Goro Miyazaki’s lack of animation experience. A landscape gardener by trade, his father became his most vocal critic causing a rift between the two (Although Miyazaki senior later delivered his blessing upon viewing the finished film). The racial controversy must embarrass Ghibli founders Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki whose films reflect their heartfelt, liberal idealism, but while the changes are regrettable one doubts they were malicious. Anime characters are aestheticized renditions of personality, and rarely resemble any specific race: black, white or Japanese. That said, Arren is a disappointingly remote hero. The film kicks off with a jolt as he murders his father, and his reasons are never adequately explained. Is he possessed, crazy, or just another homicidal teenager?

Away from unfathomable Arren, Tales from Earthsea boasts Studio Ghibli’s trademark storytelling flair and rich characterization. There is a wealth of subtext: death and rebirth, the darkness inside men’s souls, the reaffirmation of humanity via nature, a mature adult passing the baton to his uncertain, young successor. Strong ideas, but Goro Miyazaki explores them via heavy exposition instead of visual invention and struggles with reams of back-story. Instead of the moral complexity and gentle humanism of his father’s films, Tales from Earthsea delivers a straightforward battle between good and evil.

On that level it’s fabulous, family entertainment featuring exciting battles, daring escapes, a lovely musical interlude actually relevant to the plot, and a knockout duel between two ferocious dragons in the sky. It seems unfair to compare the elder and younger Miyazaki’s styles, but this film does suffer when set beside other Ghibli epics. Face it anime fans, over the years we have been spoiled. Hayao Miyazaki had a talking pig pilot battle fascists (Porco Rosso; 1992), turned his childhood anxieties into a spiritual uplift (My Neighbour Totoro; 1988), questioned his own core beliefs (Princess Mononoke; 1997), used folklore to examine the fallout from Japan’s bubble economy (Spirited Away; 2001), and reworked a children’s novel into a love letter to his wife (Howl’s Moving Castle; 2004). Compared to his mind-blowing ideas, Tales from Earthsea is a little lightweight. However, its eleventh hour plot twist, philosophical aspects and a climax of visual poetry elevate this far above the CG cynicism of Shrek the Third (2007). It certainly didn’t deserve three Razzie nominations. Across Asia, Tales from Earthsea made more money than Pirates of the Caribbean 2 (2006), so Goro Miyazaki will direct again and is sure to develop his own voice. Meanwhile, Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo reputedly concerns a father trying to reconcile with his son. That is what separates craftsmanship from pure genius.
Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam

 

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