Monday, December 2, 2019

Missed it Monday - Tales from Earthsea (Anime Review)

A young man opens his arms to a large dragon at sunrise
Missed it Monday is the ongoing column where I review anime/manga that I didn't watch/read when they first came out.

Tales from Earthsea (anime) - 5.5/10

I put off watching Tales from Earthsea (Studio Ghibli) for a looooooong time. I am a huge Studio Ghibli fan. And even though Hayao Miyazaki is undeniably a genius, my favorite Studio Ghibli movie is actually From Up On Poppy Hill which was directed by his son, Goro.

Goro also directed a Tales from Earthsea and the reviews at the time were not kind. Coupled with the fact that I have read and reread the original Earthsea trilogy (now 5 books) by Ursula Le Guin countless times, it just didn't seem like I should tarnish my thoughts of Earthsea by watching the movie.

Finally though, I felt I could watch it and not have it affect my love for the books. I'm sad to say that it isn't a very good Earthsea movie. It also isn't a telling of the stories from the novels. But more so, it isn't really a very good movie in its own right. That being said, it also isn't a bad movie, so long as one does not try and compare it to the books, and the world those books describe.

The plot of the movie follows the son of a king. The prince's name is Arren. In the beginning of the movie, he kills his father, seemingly without reason and then runs away. From here, he is about to be killed by wolves when a mysterious wizard saves him. That wizard is Sparrowhawk. Yes, ostensibly the same Sparrowhawk (Ged) as the central figure in the first and third Earthsea novels.

Arren is also being chased by something dark, eventually it even starts looking just like him (note the superficial similarity to elements of the first novel). We also meet Tenar and Tehanu (also familiar names from the novels).

There is also a villain (a wizard or sorcerer of some kind), and basically, everyone comes together in the end for a big ole fight (which is not at all the tone of how the novels work through their plots).

First, let us look at this movie relative to the novels: both from whether or not it is accurate to the novels' stories as well as whether is somehow fits within that world.

The answer to both, is sadly, no. There is almost nothing from the novels in the movie, other than random tidbits, ripped off, and re-purposed for entirely different reasons. This isn't an animated version of the novels at all.

While we see Sparrowhawk's facial scar, he isn't the gaunt, haunted, or even physically weak wizard we know and love so much from the novels. Here he is depicted as big, stout, and robust, with more humor and warmth in him that his hard life from the novels would have allowed.

Then there is the problem of Tenar and Tehanu. These are nothing like the characters from the novels, nor could their current circumstances be even legitimate extensions of their stories from the books. They are simply female characters given the same names, but with nothing of the same history or personalities. Maybe most disturbing is that some characters in the film seem to hint that Tenar and Sparrowhawk have some sort of relationship, fundamentally changing the dynamic from the original trilogy.

Also, the world of Earthsea, and its characters, had a range of skin colors in the novels. I hesitate to use the term race/ethnicity to describe it for a made-up world, as those terms carry such strong meaning in our world, so I'll use skin colors/tones instead. But in the movie, the characters were all light skinned. In the books, Sparrowhawk had deep red/brown skin, others were clearly very dark skinned, while others were certainly more light skinned. I can perhaps conceptually understand this "whitewashing" as what happens when a director from a very homogeneous nation makes a film that will primarily play in that nation, but that doesn't make it right either. It looses both the complexities of the world Le Guin created, but it also eliminates representation (even if the skin tones in the world of Earthsea carry different meaning than in ours).

It is strange that Goro, if he was simply choosing to tell a story about the land of Earthsea that isn't from the novels, would pirate such key names. It's almost like fan fiction, set after some of the novels, but without a deep understanding of Le Guin's characters, world, or inner-depth. Why not just create new names to go with the new characters? Why not just tell a new story set in the same world?

Suppose that we pretend that that is what he did. Let's not let the character names get in our way and instead evaluate the movie based on whether it fits in Le Guin's world of Earthsea more broadly. Sadly, it doesn't do well with that either.

There is some passing mention of the power of things' true names as part of the highest form of magic. Also, Arren's true name plays a key role in the film. However, other than that, the world doesn't feel at all like Le Guin described it. Much of her world is hard-scrabble. Foul weather and rough seas play an enormous role in her novels, they are like characters and atmosphere all in one. But, like so many Ghibli films, Tales from Earthsea is well lit, mostly nice weather, and lush greenery. It doesn't have the look or feel of the craggy Earthsea, its poverty, nor the continuity with the character's or the magic.

So it's nothing like the novels in story or setting. But what about as a stand-alone movie, if we pretend it isn't about Earthsea at all. Is it any good?

Well, it's not awful, it's not great, I'm not even sure it's "good" but it is better than fair. Faint praise, I know.

The movie is very very slow. Which often can be a good thing. But here, the directing is so by-the-numbers that the slow pace isn't a benefit. The story itself is okay, but long, meandering, and also a bit predictable. Still, it's a better plot than most animated movies. Yet, it also doesn't resolve the central motivation of Arren killing his father, nor what the consequences of that action might be in the long-run. In some ways, it feels like an early draft of what could have been a much greater movie.

But it does provide for two strong female characters, especially Tehanu. In signature Ghibli fashion, these are independent, spirited, complex characters (even if they are totally different than their name-sakes from the books). That's a good thing for any movie, and certainly a plus here. However, there were also some characters that were clear Studio Ghibli archetypes that appeared here as side characters, and gave the film some of its unfortunate comedic moments.

While the overall look and feel of the movie didn't have the sorrow-ful, complex characters and feel of the novels, it did have moments where it captured some of the existential qualities of the books. Not often, but there were hints. As mentioned above, the comedic moments from some of the side characters/scenes truly broke the movie away from the tone of the novels.

On its own, the movie isn't bad. Even a mediocre Ghibli movie is better than most of the dreck out there. But it didn't have the spark of the best Ghibli films either in writing or direction. Then, if compared to the source material, it is a pale, pale imitation. Strangest perhaps is to use such beloved character's names with none of their soul or stories. Tales from Earthsea (the movie, not the book) gets a disappointing 5.5/10.


Please legitimately purchase or borrow manga and anime. Never read scanlations or watch fansubs. Those rob the creators of the income they need to survive and reduce the chance of manga and anime being legitimately released in English.

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