Tales from Earthsea review

Two Den of Geek writers saw Tales from Earthsea. Since it's a Studio Ghibli movie, it's safe to assume it's going to be pretty, but is it actually any good?

Carl: To date, I have seen four Studio Ghibli movies; Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and most recently, Tales From Earthsea. All have been visually spectacular, that is basically standard now when you see things put out by Gibli: they will be stunning. That, though, is only part of a movie.In case you didn’t know, plot is another. Tales From Earthsea is based on a spread of book releases by Ursula K. Le Guin about the world of Earthsea which started in the mid sixties and run all the way up to the nineties. Originally, the co-creator of Studio Ghibli and director of most of their features Hayao Miyazaki asked for the rights from Le Guin in 1984, and she denied him as well as any others who asked. It wasn’t until she saw My Neighbour Totoro twenty years that she completely fell head over heels for the Ghibli guys, and said yes. Unfortunately, Hayao was busy doing Howl’s Moving Castle and on behalf of Studio Ghibli, his son Goro Miyazaki took charge of this film adaptation.

At this point, the father and son stopped talking. Hayao felt that his son did not have the experience to direct a film and the two were not on speaking terms throughout the movie’s development. Personally, I agree with the man. The movie is pulled from a lot of different source material, over the span of at least three of the original novels, and has a very unfinished feel to it. Scenes with conversations in them end without notice or conclusion and the world of Earthsea is overlooked completely in lieu of scenes with violence or dragons. Now, I like both of these things in movies, I do, and in fact, the opening of the movie has an amazing dragon battle, but I never felt connected enough to the characters to worry about them in any way. Goro Miyazaki’s inability to explore the characters he is working with is terrifying, and it’s no wonder, he was between being a landscape gardener and a museum curator until this project landed in his lap!

The whole opening sequence of the movie has barely any relevance on the rest of it, and could have been, and is, summed up in one sentence later in the movie. As well as this you are constantly given information which you don’t really need, or haven’t a clue what relevance it has to the current plot line. So theres half the movie out of the window. Already, by taking that out, the movie feels better in my head.

Excusing the movie for a moment, Cineworld listed this movie as having English subtitles. Well, don’t be fooled, it’s the dubbed version. Personally, I have never ever understood why movies need to be dubbed. Sure, it might be funny in old kung fu movies, but the only reason to do it is to attract a dumber audience that can’t read. Even if you have Willem Dafoe as one of the leads, it still doesn’t save you. Speaking of Dafoe, does a man with a really gruff voice match a guy who looks like a girl with big nails? No. And what about Cheech Marin and Timothy Dalton, silly voiced folk who just do not fit these roles. At least Willem Dafoe has a cool voice, just unluckily it doesn’t match. Anyway, that’s another matter.

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And now for the good things about the movie. Firstly, the visuals, as always, are absolutely stunning and I would be proud to have a print of one of the sunsets on my wall. Secondly, a choice few scenes, including a fantastic acapella singing section from the young female character Tenar and a humorous magical face alteration in lieu of being caught by guards. Thirdly, the opening sequence of two dragons battling it out above a clashing ocean. It may not have had any bearing on the movie, but it was pretty cool!

In conclusion, Tales from Earthsea is a fairly poor movie for the standard of Ghibli work. That being said, there wasn’t enough cause for a walk-out or a shouty, sweary review. (I’ll say it for a third time, just so you can completely grasp this.) The visuals in every Ghibli movie I’ve seen have been utterly spellbinding, and this is no different. If the review were based purely on that, this review would be completely different. Well done visual department, but shame on you Goro – better luck on number two.

Danny: “Twenty or so years ago,” wrote Ursula K. Le Guin in her blog last year, “Mr Hayao Miyazaki wrote me expressing interest in making an animated film based on the (then only three) books of Earthsea.” The sci-fi novelist, an inspiration to authors such as Neil Gaiman, refused the offer until she saw My Neighbour Totoro, after which she became “a Miyazaki fan at once and forever.” Twenty (or so) years after the Japanese director sent his wishes in a letter, Studio Ghibli’s take on Le Guin’s Earthsea novels has surfaced in cinemas. And – it pains me to say this – it’s a mess.

Directed by Goro Miyazaki, son of Hayao, Tales From Earthsea draws plots and characters from Le Guin’s books (mainly The Farthest Shore and Tehanu) into a three-act tale of guilt, inner peace and magic, rich with the luxurious visuals we have come to expect from the studio. As a matter of fact, there’s a whole bunch of the things we love about Ghibli’s output – a wild imagination at work; an excellent score; the familiar battles of Mother Nature vs man, man vs himself, Ghibli vs narrative cohesion – so what can the problem possibly be?

The problems are abundant. Tales From Earthsea is not only boring: it is baffling, it is po-faced, it is poorly scripted and it is never quite sure what to do with itself. It seems almost illegal for this to happen to such delicious-sounding source material: wizard Sparrowhawk (voiced with Timothy Dalton with a warm authority, despite the unintentionally hilarious name) is the Archmage, the most powerful wizard in all of Earthsea. He becomes the mentor to a guilt-ridden young prince by the name of Arren (Matt Levin), who is part of the evil wizard Cobb’s (Willem Dafoe, falling asleep) plans. The script, by Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa, tells us of things without ever actually bothering to explain them, assured that we, the audience, are already clued-up on Le Guin’s deep-running mythology. Even if we were, why try to sum everything up into the space of a two hour visit to the picture house? The film does the books both a great service and disservice: Le Guin herself said that she found “much of [the film] incoherent” but, you know, it’s also a fantastic advert for the novels (in the same way Michael Bay’s The Island was an advert for Blade Runner).

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Of course, it’s not bad. There are moments of great beauty (aside from the super-detailed animation, of course), especially in the farm-set second act with scenes of ploughing having a charming calming effect, and a folk-like song that a girl sings in one important scene is both touching and haunting – poetic, almost. But these only serve to make Tales From Earthsea more of a frustrating experience. When these hints of brilliance surface, they are quickly swallowed up by the humourless murk of the toffee-thick plot – so much, in fact, that the behind the scenes story of a Miyazaki family rift captures the heart far greater than the film itself. (“For me, [my father] gets zero marks as a father,” writes Goro in an entry on his production blog, “but full marks as a director of animated films.”)

Maybe the last word should go to the creator of Earthsea herself: “Very few authors have any control over the use made of their books by a film studio… such labels as “creative consultant” are meaningless.” Le Guin writes on her blog, before pleading: “Please do not hold any writer except the script-writer responsible for anything in a film. Don’t ask the book’s author “Why did they . . . ?” She is wondering too.” And there, in the audience, so are we.


2 out of 5