More noise than signal

Tales from Earthsea

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

The fantasy realm of Earthsea is in the middle of interesting times, in the Chinese proverbial sense. Thought long-vanished, dragons have returned to the skies. Crops are failing in the kingdom of Elad, and while the King seems wise and dedicated, he’s also a heartbeat away from being assassinated by, it turns out, his own son, Prince Arren, who takes his father’s sword and flees to the country.

It seems his tale will come to an end on the wrong end of a pack of wolves’ combined teeth, but a chance encounter with the Archmage Ged, or Sparrowhawk, saves his life, and together they travel to Hort Town. Arren saves a young girl, Therru, from slavers, but no good deed goes unpunished, and the slaver gang return to capture Arren later.

Sparrowhawk again saves the day, but this brings him to the attention of the slaver’s master, Lord Cob, another powerful wizard who has tangled with Ged before, setting them on a collision course that will also drag in Ged’s friend Tenar, Therru’s guardian. It seems fate has chosen them to attempt to restore balance to the world, although that’s no easy task, and seems to lie in uncovering just what Lord Cob is up to, along with uncovering the secrets and problems of Therru and Arren both.

I’d read at least one of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books in the dim and distant past, but I’d be lying if I remembered more than vague concepts from them. Still, there were enough threads nagging away at me while watching Gorō Miyazaki’s take on the world of Earthsea to do a little digging afterwards, and it’s a pretty loose amalgamation of, well, all of them, picking and choosing a bunch of themes and events and wrapping them up in a neat bow, but a bow that turns out just to look neat rather than have any capacity to hold things together, and then everything just flops out all over the shop.

I presume Gorō knew the point of Le Guin’s books, as it’s mentioned enough times in the dialogue, just not in the actions. It’s instructive to look at the conclusion of A Wizard of Earthsea, where Ged is followed by a dark presence that’s revealed to be his darker natures, and only by facing this and accepting this as part of himself can he find peace. That’s adapted into Arren’s B-plot, but rather than accept that this neat Taoist principle could work as a finale, we instead get a rather more straightforward endgame of “use magic sword on evil wizard”. Now, I’m no expert of Taoism, but I don’t think that’s a central tenet of it.

The same feeling runs all through the adaptation, a sense that this doesn’t quite understand what its source material is about on anything more than a superficial level, and has tried to cram as much as possible into two hours rather than take any time at all to explain, in all but the broadest of strokes, why anything that’s going on is in any way important, or who these characters are, or what motivates them, again, on all but the most superficial levels. For a studio that’s normally so good at world building, it’s what makes this stick out like a sore thumb.

It’s also particularly critical in the case of Arren, who, remember, we are introduced to as he kills his father, an action that’s only barely touched on again, and his whole “struggle with darkness” arc is really quite poorly elucidated and needed a lot more focus.

This is the only Ghibli film that, for what very little it’s worth, holds a rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes’ woefully simplistic rating scale. There are positives to take away from Tales from Earthsea, although admittedly it’s the usual Ghibli strong points. It looks and sounds great, and while it swings and misses on most points there’s an intriguing world behind Earthsea that makes the setting interesting almost by default. Indeed, for all its faults I enjoyed this more than The Wind Rises, and certainly more than Ocean Waves.

Now, third worst of the studio’s output is nothing to shout from the rooftops about, but this is Studio Ghibli we’re talking about. A minor work, but I’d say one that’s just barely good enough to recommend watching at some point rather than avoiding like the plague.