Welcome to the week of Ghibli everyone! An entire week dedicating myself to watching different Ghibli films for seven days. This will be one of the easier projects I have had, particularly because I love and grew up with Ghibli and own every film but Ocean Waves…yet even then it will be mine in due time. The thing is I haven’t watched all the films, even some of the extremely acclaimed works like Princess Mononoke. So this week is to remind myself of the years of wonderment Ghibli has given me, and helping to culminate my passion for animation. Toy Story, Beauty and the Beast, A Goofy Movie, and My Neighbour Totoro are all films that started me down the path of wanting to be in film some way or another and hopefully make it to animation someday (for writing because I can’t animate even if I wanted to). That’s why giving my fair and honest opinions on films I have yet to watch in their catalogue is one of the things I feel I need to do. Something that I as a fan of animation needs to do. So welcome to Ghibli Week on the blog and hopefully we can have a fun time.
The first film I decided to look at was the supposed “worst” title in the Ghibli catalogue by many fans. Tales from Earthsea was an adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series along with a manga created by Hayao Miyazaki. One would think the master himself would be the one directing something that is a classic fantasy series and one that took forever to get the rights for an adaptation as Le Guin was known to decline offers for adaptation. Instead the studio decided to give such a big job to Miyazaki’s son, Goro, someone Miyazaki has even been said to have declined originally for the role of director stating his inexperience. The inexperience of Goro shows again with Le Guin’s own personal take on the film after it was release, explaining how much of the film was nothing like her series and focused more on the violence and using the characters but none of the story. Creating a pseudo-adaptation of the Earthsea series, Goro Miyazaki’s Tales from Earthsea’s is known to be quite controversial. Is it as lackluster as many point it out to be, or is this a misunderstood gem that deserves a second chance at life?
Tales from Earthsea starts off on an odd note. Beautiful animation aside, the beginning of the film is quite the confusing beast as it plays next to nothing in most of the film’s main plot. Merely offering a brusque and vague explanation of the world and a motivation for our main character to be wandering. Prince Arren stabs his father for…reasons and runs away with his father’s sword alongside him. Now this opening section doesn’t even need to really be there for Arren’s character to really have a purpose in the story, leaving him as a boy wandering the desert hoping to die is interesting enough and one could slowly ease us into his struggles as a character throughout the film. Yet it randomly shoves the plot point in our face pointlessly, not even giving us his emotions as he stabs his father. The emotional payoff isn’t there in the beginning as to why he stabbed his father or as to why he feels so conflicted afterward effectively enough to make us care for him. This is merely the start of the worries the film has for me as a viewer, one who has no familiarity with either source material yet I don’t think even that is the problem.
The film neglects to give us reasoning throughout the film and asks us to accept a lot by fact. Arren is being chased by a copy of himself for some reason. Interesting visual design and the film effectively shows his terror through visual ques and great animation/cinematography. Yet the copy is never given much purpose in the film. Same thing with the ending which has one of the most ridiculous twists I have seen that would make even M. Night Shyamalan question Goro’s decision making. There is no point to the ending resulting as such, no way we could have predicted it throughout the film and no way to actually make us understand the logic of it because the film gave us no reason to think of it as such. What about Cob’s purpose in the entire film. I mean in the end we learn of him being scared of his own mortality, yet the roundabout way they go about it makes the reveal quite obvious and at times confusing as to why he decides to do certain things. Also the final battle against him equates to nothing but a joke, but I digress.
If animation is all one can praise the movie for, and it’s not even the best of the animation from Ghibli’s catalogue, then what merit does the film have besides more of a cursory glance? There is a reason why Le Guin said that this was Goro’s movie and not her books, because the movie itself is at times far too aimless and confused with its own story and pacing that it never feels cohesive. It throws ideas to the paintbrush and spasms over the canvas begging for questions that can never be answered about the work. The dragons looks cool in the beginning, but are pointless to the film at hand and never justify their point in existing in this world. The characters have interesting ideas behind them, yet most are poorly executed because it paces itself awkwardly. It doesn’t want to stay in one place for too long and when it does it never effectively uses its time to endear us to its cast. Make us want to ask questions about the beautiful mysticism on display with its animation and ideas. It lacks the ability to make us the audience care for what is going on.
Caring in film is a big part of our investment into the time spent watching a film. We want to be dragged into the world of the characters, to care about their ups and downs, to feel their happiness and sorrow. Yet Tales from Earthsea feels the need to have “cool” looking ideas, flashy feats of animation that makes little sense in the film, all in the attempt to make the film feel more fascinating than what it is. Beauty doesn’t only come from animation, but through giving the animation meaning. To make what is on screen come alive and coalesce into something magical, much like what Ghibli has been doing for years before this film. Spirited Away is not the most complex, but it invests us in the animation through its characters and enchanting journey they take through the world. we care about the beautiful animation because there is something worth investing into and we receive something from it that doesn’t feel frivolous. We receive a fulfilling experience.
There are positives to this movie, I mean it is a Ghibli film. There is in no way this movie could ever be the level of Planes or other lifeless wrecks. Instead the film feels misguided, it feels inexperienced, and it feels like a director’s debut more than anything else. In some ways one could say Goro’s inexperience was a detriment to the film, but one could say it was his ambition as well trying to combine so much into one film. Three books and his father’s own work as well is too ambitious to do correctly, because then it no longer remains the same as either work. This doesn’t mean Goro is a bad filmmaker, but it does play into the fact that many consider him inexperienced for the undertaking and why it is the most divided work in the Ghibli catalogue.
Though many do consider his inexperience as a means to forgive the misgivings of the film more than most. To me that is to deny growth. Goro’s first film should be a learning experience. One where he should accept the criticism and accept the praise, for if we merely hand out pity or lessen the criticism it will merely make one complacent in my opinion. When the author sees people with the name of her characters, but sees nothing else that resembles their major work, it should make one consider that maybe the work itself is inherently flawed. I am all for adaptation, and always believe that the source should be changed in ways that would benefit changing into another medium, but not at the expense of the source. Not at the expense of those who placed their trust in you, and to learn that the hard way is sometimes what most people need to accept. We can’t all be Jordan Peele and Get Out from this year. Tales from Earthsea is certainly not the worst film to start walking with, but he needs to learn how to run and run well with restraint. Who knows, maybe by From Up on Poppy Hill will be the moment where everything just clicks.
The first Ghibli film finished and six more to go through. I can’t wait to see what adventures I will come across next. Even if this film was not living up to the standards of other Ghibli films I have watched, I can still see where it was coming from. There was just little to no enjoyment there for me in such a frivolous beauty. I only wish that the next film, Only Yesterday proves to be something more substantial.
So have you watched Tales from Earthsea? What is your experience with directorial debuts? Feel free to leave a comment down below and don’t forget to have yourself a magical day!