Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Playing Around In Earthsea: A Look At Studio Ghibli's "Tales From Earthsea"

The facts of the matter are simple: Tales From Earthsea was released in Japan in 2006; it did not come to the US until 2010; and now in 2011 it is available on DVD. Hiyao Miyazaki had wanted to make a movie about Earthsea since his fabled Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind days, and when Studio Ghibli contacted Ursula K. LeGuin for permission to adapt her work, she agreed, under the impression that Miyazaki himself would direct it. It was, however, relegated to Miyazaki's son Goro, and stands as his debut as a director. After LeGuin watched the film, she commented that it was a fine movie, but it was not her book. Tales From Earthsea is largely the story of The Farthest Shore (LeGuin's third Earthsea book), with elements from Tehanu (the fourth) and even a dollop of The Other Wind (the sixth). As such, it is still the story of the Archmage Ged seeking to stop an evil wizard bent on destroying the balance of life and death so that he can live forever (The Farthest Shore), but includes the character of a young girl who is also a dragon (Tehanu) as a love interest for the young prince Arren, who is caught up in the struggle (The Other Wind, in which Arren is attracted to the dragon/woman Irian). Added to the soup is inspiration from "Shona's Journey," a song by Hiyao Miyazaki. I came to Tales From Earthsea with several drawbacks. For one, I had developed a certain image of what Earthsea and its people were like from Leguin's descriptions, and much of Goro's depictions, while gorgeous in themselves, are strangely discordant to me. The Byzantian splendor of Havenor, the capital city; the beard on Ged; the steampunk-style helmet on Hare, the slaver; the odd riding-beasts; none of these seemed right to me. Granted, there was not the years of iconography to draw on that, say, Peter Jackson had to draw on for his adaptation of Tolkien's work, but then the spirit of the books themselves should have been the artists' guide. So, too, the dynamics of the characters seemed disjointed. The movie starts with the inexplicable murder by Prince Arren of his father, an element that is never adequately dealt with or resolved. With such an immediate strike against the "hero" of the movie, it is hard to feel complete sympathy with his struggles. It is true he is out of balance, and the whole agon of the story is to return the world to Balance, but such a primal taboo is difficult to get over and forgive. (I can almost see it as Goro striking down his own father Hiyao in an attempt to establish his own identity.) The relationship between Arren and Therru, the dragon/girl, while making good cinematic sense, seems tacked on and unlikely to someone who has read the books. The plot, rather than being driven by decisions by the characters, becomes a muddle of captures, escapes, and rescues until the final showdown. Another drawback I came to the film with was, strangely, a familiarity with the productions of Studio Ghibli itself. Time and time again I came across some character design or image trope that echoed earlier films, especially the popular and critically acclaimed Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. While I have no doubt that many of these were developed by Goro himself while working with Hiyao, it does not bode well that they evoke so strongly a Studio Ghibli "style"; the last thing we need is another petrification of an original and imaginative vision. And I have two personal nitpicks that say more about the people who adapted the movie into English than the original crew. One is the pronunciation of "Archmage" with the ch as in "church"; it just sounds better and less mushy if pronounced as k as in "archangel". And the use of Cheech Marin as the voice of Hare the slaver and toady is just odd: he seems to again be doing his best hyena from The Lion King. But all of this is, of course, personal baggage that I bring myself to the viewing of Tales From Earthsea. I am, oddly, in precisely the reverse dilemma I had with Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle; whereas there I saw the movie first and then found it hard to judge the book, here I've read the books first and find it hard to judge the film. I can see it is beautiful, I can even intellectually understand how it hangs together thematically; but there is a glass wall between it and my heart that keeps me from surrendering.


Babel said...

The tropes aside, how would you rate the animation? One great thing about Studio Ghibli films of the past is that you can pretty near do a capture of any given frame of animation and have a beautiful picture.

Brer said...

The animation is still first-rate; no cutting corners. As I say, it is a beautiful movie.