Founder and Editor; Toronto, Canada (@AnarchistTodd)
[Tomorrow is the strongest release day of the year and so we are taking the opportunity to pull our reviews of the key new release titles back up to the top of the stack.]

In many ways Goro Miyazaki's Tales From Earthsea was a film destined to fail, crushed under the weight of massive expectations. Not only is it a second attempt to adapt a beloved literary franchise, a franchise whose first adaptation was a critical failure publicly torn to shreds by its author, but it is the debut piece of animation directed by a topiary gardener whose father just so happens to be the production company's co-founder and a living legend in the animation world, a legend who publicly criticized his son's selection as director of this project. Put it all together and you had speculation that the younger Miyazaki was in charge of the film in name only, a publicity stunt selection at the top of the credits while the real work would be overseen by others with more experience. Expectations were huge; many in the sidelines ere openly anticipating and embracing a coming failure. But if you can wiggle your way out from under all of those expectations and set aside the famous family name for a moment to take the film on its own terms what you have is a more than auspicious debut project, one that is far from perfect but is still worlds better than the last Ghibli project directed by anyone other than the elder Miyazaki or Isao Takahata - that's be The Cat Returns - or, for that matter, any Japanese feature animation projects released by any of the major animation houses over the past few years. [note here that I consider Studio 4C an independent and not a major] While it is impossible to stave the expectations and comparisons off forever what I will try to do here is break down the film first on its own terms before addressing how it fits into the Ghibli canon and compares to the original text. Yes, there will be spoilers. You have been warned. We begin in the rough seas, the waves threatening to overturn a small craft. It's crew turns desperately to their weather worker, the on board wizard whose job it is to control the winds and the waves and keep them all safe, but the weather worker is helpless. His magic has failed him, a troubling scenario since the magic of Earthsea comes directly from the land itself. Even more troubling is the sight of dragons flying over the eastern lands, far from their regular home in the west, dragons not only flying but fighting and killing amongst themselves. When the sailors finally make it home to report this turn of events the news gets worse. There is a plague upon the land, the people are restless, growing violent and panicked, and the king - almost as soon as we meet him - is slain by the hand of his own son, the teenaged Arren who doesn't understand why he has done such a horrible thing and flees his home in fear and shame. Far from his homeland Arren meets Sparrowhawk, a wandering wizard who rescues the youngster from a pack of wolves and takes him on as a travelling companion. Though he is not specific about his aims Sparrowhawk is clearly on a mission of his own, roaming the island nations of Earthsea to discover whatever sinister force it is that has upset the balance of nature so badly so that he can set it right and restore order to the world. Over the course of their travels the pair run afoul of drug dealers and slave traders before finally joining Sparrowhawk's old friend Tenar and her young, badly scarred adoptive daughter Therru and the group as a whole eventually attract the attention of Cob, the evil wizard at the core of the problems plaguing Earthsea. Tales From Earthsea is a rich, complex story beautifully drawn and animated in great detail. It is a story that tackles big themes and big ideas and gives its audience enough credit to not spoon feed, assuming that people can keep up. It is set in a world rich with history and culture that it works into the framework of the film easily, smartly balancing the urge to explain with the smarts to know when things best serve the story by being left in the background - providing weight without distracting. Goro Miyazaki has here crafted a remarkably strong debut effort, a film with enormous ambitions that showcases a remarkable level of craft. That ambitiousness, in fact, actually stands as both one of the film's great strengths and one of two significant weaknesses as the film occasionally tries to bite off more than it can properly handle and is forced to resort to stretches of exposition to explain what's happening because there is just too much happening and too much needed background to the story for Miyazaki to portion it out slowly. Aiming big in this case means an ending that may very well confuse some who don't have a prior knowledge of the world from the source novels - the core of what you need to know is contained within the film but there just isn't enough room in the film to properly set up the character with the degree of background for the climactic moment to really settle into place. If aiming too large is one major problem the other lies in some very odd choices surrounding Arren's character, most specifically introducing him in the scene where he kills his father, a situation never really explained, a choice that makes him an unsympathetic and confusing choice as the film's lead protagonist. Now, if the film on its own is impressive if somewhat flawed, next comes the obvious question of where Miyazaki's work stands in relation to that of his revered father. It's a horribly unfair comparison, to be sure, particularly since people will be comparing Goro's first ever work to his father's later body of work crafted when he had far more experience under his belt, but there's really no avoiding it. There are obvious points both of similarity and difference. First, because the character and animation work is being done by the same studio and same artists, the film is visually very similar to Hayao's work, instantly identifiable as a Ghibli production by anyone who has even a passing knowledge of the studio's output. This, of course, means that it's stunning to look at and is richly designed with as much attention given to landscape and environment as is to the characters - an important choice thematically for this film in particular. Also shared with his father is an underlying concern for the balance of nature and a preference for complex characters that don't really fit in to quick and easy good versus evil categories. Our heros are flawed, the villains understandable and recognizable. The message of course, is that we are both and it is up to us to choose our path wisely. Goro has not yet developed his father's gift for observation, for finding the quiet moments that define characters as much - if not more - than their actions and speech, but he's certainly working his way down that same road. As for differences, Tales From Earthsea aims for an older audience than do the huge majority of Hayao's films - which he has acknowledged have twelve year old girls as their primary target audience - with a seventeen year old boy as its primary protagonist. It is also more focused on plot and action than are most of Hayao's offerings, which tend to focus more on mood and character. Is Goro equal to his father? No, of course not. And frankly, I don't think he wants to repeat what his father does and is looking to develop his own voice which, while not quite fully developed yet, is certainly on its way. He is, however, clearly his father's son, with many of the same concerns and beliefs driving his work. Now, for fans of the book - how does the film compare? Well, the plot synopsis should answer that. While very clearly set in the world of Earthsea, a world populated by instantly recognizable characters that follows the same rules and philosophy of the books, and while the plot is largely based on the third of the Earthsea novels - Tehanu - there have been MAJOR changes made, some of which make sense, some of which don't. The alteration of Arren's character, for instance, is baffling and thoroughly unnecessary. The killing of Arren's father is not at all necessary to drive his story in the film and does nothing but make his character harder to empathize with, and I honestly can't understand why that decision was made. If nothing else it also means that if the studio had hopes of making any further Earthsea films they would need to abandon the storylines of the later books entirely because what they've done with Arren's character simply cannot be made to mesh with the role he plays in later days in the original novels. Cob's motivation remains consistent but the handling of the final confrontation with the evil wizard is dramatically altered, though I honestly think this decision works simply because the events of the novel would be far too difficult to set up and explain within the confines of this single film and, being primarily a think-piece, wouldn't make for very engaging film. The question of setting up and explaining the world raises another question I simply could not shake throughout the film. If you are going to make an Earthsea film, why on earth would you start with Tehanu? Sure, it's a better choice than The Tombs of Atuan, which I think would be nearly unfilmable, but by the time LeGuin arrived at Tehanu she had such a large cast of complicated characters in place and so many deep themes introduced and working simultaneously that it seems a bit of a fools game to think you could do all of them justice starting off cold in only a single film. Issues in the novel don't need to be explained because LeGuin can assume everyone's already read what came before and understands the basic rules and histories. She is free to continue to build and broaden without worrying about laying the groundwork because that has all been done already. This was not the case for Miyazaki in this film and it's definitely an issue they've had to work around while laying out the narrative. A better choice, I think, would clearly have been to begin where the books begin, with A Wizard of Earthsea - which this film actually lifts one major plot point from - and let us learn and explore the world and the rules that govern it as Sparrowhawk himself does. Tales of Earthsea will not be available in North America until at least 2009 thanks to rights issues connected to the SciFi Channel's live action adaptation of the title but there are a few good options available now. I myself have opted for the basic Japanese release which includes not only English subtitles but also the full English dub so that I can watch it with my son. As is virtually always the case with Japanese releases the audio and video quality on this is excellent. Should you need only the subtitles and aren't concerned about the dub, the new Hong Kong DVD release is an excellent, less expensive, option.

Tales from Earthsea

  • Gorô Miyazaki
  • Ursula K. Le Guin (novel)
  • Gorô Miyazaki (screenplay)
  • Keiko Niwa (screenplay)
  • Hayao Miyazaki (concept)
  • Jun'ichi Okada
  • Aoi Teshima
  • Bunta Sugawara
  • Yûko Tanaka
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Gorô MiyazakiUrsula K. Le GuinKeiko NiwaHayao MiyazakiJun'ichi OkadaAoi TeshimaBunta SugawaraYûko TanakaAnimationAdventureFantasy

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