Shiny Shelf


Tales from Earthsea

By Mark Clapham on 11 August 2007

Culture would be very boring indeed if no artist reacted to their predecessors with anything other than the utmost respect and humility. Reacting against those who have gone before you is one of the major engines of change, the young defining themselves against the old. By responding to old ideas, we get news ones.

However, sometimes by responding to something unique and inventive, you end up defaulting to base normal, creating work which is average and ordinary. React against something that’s really, really good – creative, charming, funny – and you may well just end up with something conservative, dull, and rather tedious.

With his directorial debut, Goro Miyazaki has set out to establish a personal style that determinedly avoids the hallmarks of his feted father, Hayao Miyazaki (‘Spirited Away’, ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’, ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ et al). He certainly succeeds in doing something different – there’s virtually none of Miyazaki senior’s trademark creative joy, humanity and sense of wonder in ‘Tales from Earthsea’.

Instead, this is a very very serious fantasy film set in a cod-medieval land with an entirely human cast, the only fantastical elements being a couple of dragons (barely seen, as part of the plot revolves around the dragons and humans having parted ways at some point in the past) and some low key magic (Jedi mind tricks and the odd visual illusion, for the most part). When the scenery opens up, with ruined cityscapes taken straight from those old masters depicting the classical splendour of ancient times, the film looks beautiful, but too much of it is trapped in a farm and nearby tower.

The protagonists are either platitude-spouting cliches (the wise mentor, the wholesome farmgirl) or consumed with angsty inner darkness (the film’s hero Arren is a patricidal adolescent emo-whinger, while the female lead is an aggressively defensive orphan), neither of which are a joy to watch. There’s also an uncomfortable interaction between anime cliche (there’s a captain-of-the-guard henchman who is sooo the archetypal anime villain that he’s actually quite funny, just because he’s so generic) and a whole other set of cliches imported from western fantasy cinema – did anyone, after ‘Lord of the Rings’ really need another fantasy film with a celtic, Clannadish soundtrack? Or a dose of cycle-of-life eco-wibbling about the importance of agriculture.

Most damning of all, and what really brings ‘Tales of Earthsea’ to its knees, is the storytelling. It sucks. Basic plot points are ludicrously over-emphasised (characters say out loud when they’re about to do something, then do it onscreen) while important matters of motivation and character are elucidated only in the form of funny face-pulling of the kind that just suggests an overindulgence in muesli rather than inner trauma. Potential for spectacle and visual interest is squandered – fantastical and wonderful events are alluded to in boring, ordinary dinner-table conversations. There’s also far too much dredging over the underlying hippy spritualism of the piece, and too little over anything actually compelling.

Hayao Miyazaki’s films have captured the essence and joy of childhood again and again. Goro’s debut is only a development or progression in that it moves from childhood into adolescence – angst, misdirected anger, self-obsession. The sheer skill of Ghibli’s animators and designers bring some visual interest and lovely compositions to the piece, but there’s no real getting around the fact that this is a quite boring story told in a quite boring manner.


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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named markclapham.com.




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