Over the past few hundred years or so there have been tales a plenty concerning wizardry and magic. Some good; others less so, but from these tales it's fair to say that pretty much everyone conjures some sort of definition in their mind at the mention of magic and wizardry. For a novelist to attempt to define magic is by no means easy, and often opens up the proverbial can of worms that can lead to an explanation falling slightly on the side of overtly complex (I'm looking at you, Robert Jordan). However, American author of the Earthsea books, Ursula K. Le Guin, took the approach of keeping things simple. She offered a definition for magic that provided an explanation, but didn't get in the way of her story; it came in an easily digestible form. Magic, she claimed, is the ability to control someone or something completely. All you needed to be able to do this, is the person or object's true name.
There's plenty of room for plot to fit around this concept, and Le Guin certainly managed to capture a sense of quiet mystery with her telling of the tale of Sparrowhawk, the young wizard, as he fumbles his way through adolescence and the discovery of his magical powers. But this is where I'm going to draw the line under Le Guin's books and their relationship to Studio Ghibli's interpretation of the Earthsea series. The books, it seems, were more an inspiration for the film than something to use as the core for it's narrative. A kind of fountain that Director Goro Miyazaki, son of the lauded Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle), could draw ideas from and re-mould them to his own concept, which, if I'm honest, is a far cry from Le Guin's rich tapestry of plot and story.
So in isolation, Goro Miyazaki's directorial debut is actually rather good. Pressure would undoubtedly have been high, given his father's long list of successes, and with such sizeable shoes to fill, it's fair to say that, like father like son, the Miyazaki's know how to make a movie. Originally, it was Hayao Miyazaki who wanted to adapt Ursula K. Le Guin's books back in the '80s, but Le Guin, precious about her books, refused. It was years later, when Miyazaki, the animation genius and Studio Ghibli's founder, had a few movies under his belt and many to great acclaim, that Le Guin finally gave permission for the Earthsea Trilogy to be adapted for screen. Hayao's son, Goro came up with some storyboards, and so he was given the helm for the project.
As I've said, the movie doesn't hold water when it comes to following Le Guin's tale, but the adaptation still offers a rich and bountiful narrative that I personally found far easier to follow than some of Goro's father's works. However, this significant departure from Le Guin's original works is something that irked her greatly, and it's fair to say that she has been anything but shy in voicing her opinions on this fact. Since the movie's original theatrical release in 2006, she has been quoted numerous times expressing her displeasure, once, rather scathingly, informing director Goro Miyazaki that “It's not my book, it's your film”.
Granted, we're reviewing the film and not the book, but it is, I feel, important to underline the fact that Miyazaki's take on the novels is somewhat of a departure from the original text.
The movie tells the tale of a young Prince named Arren, whose inexplicable decision to murder his father and steal his magical sword drives him out of the slowly decaying Kingdom. Whilst escaping, Arren is set upon by a bloodthirsty pack of wolves. Faced with his inevitable, bloody fate, we catch a glimpse of remorse in Arren's face; a hint of character redemption that leaves us rather relieved when his gruesome demise is thwarted by a passing wizard, Sparrowhawk (Timothy Dalton), also known as Ged.
Sparrowhawk takes the boy under his wing, and Arren warily accepts tutelage from the wizened wizard who bears a curious scar on his face, travelling as his companion to the port city of Hortown. There, Arren witnesses the treacherous and terrible underbelly of the city, a side to life that he is unaccustomed to, having always been a boy of privileged surroundings at the King's palace. Greatly humbled by what he experiences in Hortown, he is overwhelmed with regret at what he has done in killing his father. He reconciles with himself by acknowledging that he has an inner demon that cannot be tamed, and can erupt in a fiery fury at any given time. It's weak, but it'll do for an explanation at a push.
Soon, Arren is captured by a group of slavers working for an evil, and somewhat androgynous wizard, Cob (Willem Defoe), who is completely and utterly preoccupied with immortality, and has no qualms whatsoever in dealing out death in order to prevent his own. Arren is tricked by Cob into revealing his true name, only to find that Cob has complete control over him. Cob uses Arren to lure Sparrowhawk to his castle. The two wizards, it would appear, have some history.
There is a sub-plot that is hinted at involving the return of dragons to the land. Sailors and townsfolk have been growing nervous at the increasingly frequent reported sightings of Dragons lately. This arc is there from the outset, but feels somewhat clumsy or tacked on, and is never quite elaborated, remaining slightly out of focus from the main narrative of the movie. Something about this has Hayao Miyazaki's footprints all over it. The harsh truth is that when it comes to the Miyazaki's, a degree of confusion is to be expected as par for the course, and this remains true with Tales from Earthsea and it's dragon sub-plot but never to the point of despair. I wasn't put off by not quite understanding where this fitted in to the bigger picture since I found the movie abundant with intrigue elsewhere. I guess you could say that I wouldn't have been any less confused if this arc just wasn't there from the beginning really.
The movie, for me, is a genuine success. It is atmospheric in its production design, and though the animation pales in comparison somewhat to his father's work, Goro Miyazaki proves that he understands how to capture the magic of cell animation. The hints are everywhere that with a few more movie notches to his belt, Goro Miyazaki will be every bit the director that his father is. The story is, on the whole, less fractured than I would have expected from a Miyazaki movie, but this is Goro, not Hayao, and though a far cry from being true to the book, it stands up on it's own two feet quite well. It feels as though there is a boldness in Goro Miyazaki's approach, reminiscent of his father's, though executed in his own way. Long and lingering wide shots are used regularly, and to great effect, setting the atmosphere and emotion for a scene exceptionally well. The pace of the movie is slow, and some might say this is to it's detriment, however, I found it to be a very brave approach. So often the pace of a movie can distract from the content and narrative, but I found Tales from Earthsea to be balanced and cohesive.
Not as good as some in Studio Ghibli's repertoire but better than others, Tales from Earthsea is, on the whole, a great success. Though Hayao Miyazaki needn't worry too much just yet, I have a feeling he'll be taking the occasional look over his shoulder at his son's progress. Doubtless the master for some time to come, there is every possibility that one day, Hayao may have to figuratively step aside and hand the master's mantle to his son. If everything that Goro Miyazaki produces from here on in is either as good, or better than Tales from Earthsea, then as cinema goers, we're all in for treat.
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