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Life and death
on 25 August 2011
"Tales from Earthsea" is a Miyazaki movie. Just not THE Miyazaki.
No, this extremely loose adaptation of Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea series is directed by Hayao Miyazaki's son, Goro Miyazaki. And it has the earmarks of a promising first effort -- the visuals are hauntingly lovely, the dialogue is sometimes beautiful, and there's raw passion in its making. But honestly, the story is often confusing, and fans of Le Guin's books will probably implode with rage over the story changes.
The archmage Sparrowhawk encounters a young boy named Prince Arren in the desert, and takes him under his wing. Arren is on the run from his own kingdom after committing a horrible crime, and Sparrowhawk is out to find out why magic seems to be draining out of the world, and darkness is creeping into people's hearts.
After some misadventures with slavers, they make their way to Sparrowhawk's friend/love interest Tenar, and her adopted daughter Therru. Unfortunately, the malevolent mage Cob has learned of Sparrowhawk's presence nearby, and plans to use Arren in his quest for eternal life and revenge againt Sparrowhawk... unless Therru can help her friend come to terms with his inner darkness.
Like most movies from Studio Ghibli, "Tales From Earthsea" is visually stunning almost beyond belief -- ivy-draped cities, azure seaports, dark looming castles against twilight skies, and long sweeping green fields dotted with trees in the morning sun. There's a genuine sense of magic and mystery to this world, and you can really feel the passion that Miyazaki had for his story and the way it's depicted.
However, the story itself is kind of mixed. The dialogue is strong and often hauntingly powerful ("But only to men is it given to know that we must die, and that is a precious gift"), and the story has some scenes that linger in the mind afterwards. But the narrative is often confusing -- the murky cosmology, undeveloped backstory (what are the tombs of Atuan?), and the whole subplot about Arren is just befuddling. His initial actions -- before we even get to know him -- are baffling.
Most of the story's character development centers on Arren. He seems like a nice polite young boy, but from his very first shocking scene we see that darkness and despair are slowly consuming him. Miyazaki crafts a solid father/son relationship between Arren and Sparrowhawk, and the archmage is also a powerful character -- understanding, forgiving, and universally kind.
Miyazaki also spins up a solid bond between Sparrowhawk and his old friend Tenar, who have the comfortable feel of an old married couple who know each other so well that they can practically finish each other's sentences. Therru is flawed, though -- she's not really fleshed out much, and she does something near the movie's end that left me scratching my head. It wasn't really foreshadowed or hinted at -- it just happens.
As for the villain Cob... uh, he seems like just a pallid effeminate villain at first, but he gets progressively creepier as we see more of him. Example: the scene where he slips Arren a roofie to get his true name. That was... disturbing.
Goro Miyazaki isn't the master that his father is, but there is still plenty of power, beauty and promise in his movie debut, "Tales From Earthsea." Beautifully rendered, but flawed.