“Would you force the sea to grow still to save one wave?”
The most successful approach to evaluating whether or not Tales from Earthsea (Blu-ray) is a disc for you concerns managing your expectations. Does it feature the now-signature Studio Ghibli style, with breath-taking hand-drawn animation? Yes. Are the characters sympathetic and engaging, with vocal performances successfully emotive in the various dialogue tracks? Yes. Is this a faithful adaptation of the beloved “Earthsea” series of books by Ursula K. LeGuin? No. Is this directed by Miyazaki? One of them! Will the storytelling journey satisfy you anyway? Um…Maybe?
The main issue with Tales from Earthsea is structure. The plot unfolds like chapters from a book, but noticeably lack the cohesion of a complete story. This feels like a first-time director’s work which is exactly what it is. Goro Miyazaki, legendary director Hayao Miyazaki’s son, was handed the reins to this when his father’s commitment to Howl’s Moving Castle prevented him from directing it himself. And in this case knowing the film is taken from a series of books as well as a graphic novel written by Hayao Miyazaki compounds this segmented feeling, as though parts of the plot are taken from different books and lightly tied together in the same cinematic world. But the problem with that approach is loose ends all over the place. You will end your viewing with unanswered questions. Too many, in my opinion.
For instance the opening scenes which should set the tone and introduce the main conflict are a red herring. We learn all about dragons and man and their interactions and then everything laid out is summarily ignored for the rest of the film. Don’t tell me anything about the dragons if they have virtually nothing to do with the rest of the film. Don’t set up a mystery about the world’s imbalance if you are planning on shifting the focus instead to the struggle between two wizards and their final battle, letting the main idea behind the film linger unaddressed. Take the time you have wasted and instead focus on backstory, character development, anything which ends up relating to the rest of the film. Tales from Earthsea feels unfinished, as though there are three more films waiting in the wings to answer all the questions. It’s like when my dad watched The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring without knowing anything about it and thought at the end it was the only film which was going to be released. If you watched that and knew there were no other films you’d be frustrated as all get out at the end.
And speaking of frustration there is another missing element to Tales of Earthsea which may prove to be a divisive factor. One of the other hallmarks of a Studio Ghibli production is absent and that is a strong female protagonist. The film centers around the wizards Cob (Willem Dafoe, John Wick) and Sparrowhawk (Timothy Dalton, Penny Dreadful) with a large portion of the story following the latter as he teams up with Prince Arren (Matt Levin, Codename: Kids Next Door), a fugitive running from his criminal past.
Not to say there are no women. Most notable is Tenar (Mariska Hargitay, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit), a woman from Sparrowhawk’s past who takes him and Arren in when they are in need. This leads us to some rather drawn-out farming scenes as the men attempt to return the favor Tenar did for them. The other female is Therru (Blaire Restaneo, All About the Andersons), a young girl who lives with Tenar and has serious trust issues as well as carefully guarded secrets. Neither Tenar nor Therru rise above their roles as background characters in the male-driven plot. Thus if you love the Studio Ghibli way of championing young girls as the driving force for their amazing cinematic stories Tales from Earthsea will not be a refreshing break from tradition but rather an irritant.
So consider these points when deciding whether or not to invest in Tales from Earthsea (Blu-ray). Are you looking for a classic Studio Ghibli film? Do you mind open endings? Are you looking for a faithful adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Earthsea” series? Your answers will lead you toward or away this film.
The one thing I cannot nitpick at is the technical specs. As per usual Disney leads the way in producing some of the most beautifully crafted films imaginable and Tales from Earthsea is no exception. The video is a stunning 1.85:1 1080p HD transfer. Colors are rich and saturated, with the reds and blacks especially showing lovely variances and depths of tones. None of the levels are an issue, with the whites never blinding but rather echoing the purity they symbolize and the night scenes still maintaining visibility without sacrificing the intended atmosphere. Everything is as crisp and sharp as you could ask for. The audio is equally amazing, with the Japanese track a stunning 6.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and the English one a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. As if that wasn’t enough there’s also a Dolby 5.1 French track. Though I prefer to view a film with the native language in this case you won’t suffer listening to another dub. All the audio options highlight the score, Foley, and dialogue well and you won’t need to adjust anything. It’s a technically superior disc with no flaws to nag you.
In terms of special features a couple of them are ported over from the DVD release, specifically the trailers and a couple featurettes. New special features for the Blu-ray release are a DVD copy of the film along with a new featurette about the backstory behind the film’s music.
So manage your expectations wisely. If you want to watch a classic Studio Ghibli film Tales from Earthsea is not it. However if you’re simply looking for a beautifully technical film which echoes elements of a beloved series of books and don’t mind open endings you may very well find Goro Miyazaki’s directorial debut worth the time.