Tales from Earthsea (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Tales from Earthsea (2011)

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Andrew DISLIKEFinally arriving on DVD this week is Tales from Earthsea. It's a Studio Ghibli production (Princess Mononoke, Pom Poko, Spirited Away) so I went in with what I now realize were unreasonable expectations.  Studio Ghibli was Pixar for Japan before there was any Pixar to be had, which is partly why so many of them pay very vocal homage to the Japanese masters.  Unfortunately, even going back and reassessing my expectations, Tales from Earthsea just doesn't have the kind of muscle that it needs to stand on it's own legs, let alone on the same shelf as Spirited Away.

But there I go again, comparing a film from a first time director to one of the greatest animated films put to celluloid.  Still, the director of Tales from Earthsea is Goro Miyazaki, the son of the legendary director of Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki.  Reports from the production of Tales reveal that Goro was hesitant to follow in his father's footsteps and that the execution of the film drove something of a rift between the two that has since healed.

Goro was asked to direct Tales by Studio Ghibli and the film does not bear the markings of any kind of passion project.  It's loosely based on a series of novels by Ursula K. Le Guin and based on the movie appears to share aesthetic and storytelling queues from any number of superior Role Playing Games.  I won't hold this against Ursula, who was also critical of Goro's work and stated that the movie and book world's are entirely separate.

Tales opens with the kind of exposition seen at the start of a Dungeons and Dragons campaign.  A ship and her crew are being tossed around by a storm when they all witness two dragons fighting in the sky overhead.  One slays the other and, after a line of dialogue explaining that this sort of thing never happens, we cut to the nearby kingdom where the king and his trusted advisor hear of these events.  The advisor calmly notes that Very Bad Things are happening and the "balance" of the world is set to be thrown asunder.

He also reveals that dragons and humans were once the same species - an evolutionary tree I'm sure is absolutely fascinating.

After a scene in which the king is stabbed by an unknown young assailant we cut to the desert where we find the attacker being stalked by a large cadre of desert wolves.  He doesn't feel like defending himself but, thankfully, a powerful wizard just happens to be nearby and saves the nihilistic young man. The boy is Prince Arren (voice of Matt Levin), who "just wasn't himself" when he decided to stab his father.  Oh, and the wizard is the all power archmage Sparrowhawk (Timothy Dalton).

The plot forms around the dark mage Cob's (Willem Dafoe) plan to seize Arren and wring out the secret of eternal life Arren holds in his body.  There's also a bunch of shenanigans involving the local guardsmen who just can't seem to win a fight against Arren and an hour long sequence in which Arren and Sparrowhawk hide out in the countryside.  There they meet Tenar (Mariska Hargitay) and  Therru (Blaire Restaneo) who will both serve as love interests and hostages for the beleaguered Arren and Sparrowhawk.

All of this is dreadfully dull.  Tales takes more than 15 minutes to introduce any of it's main characters and then more than an hour to introduce the central conflict that drives the story.  The animation and character designs do little to alleviate the tedium and are mostly recycled figures from previous Studio Ghibli productions.

Is it time for the final boss yet?

As a protagonist, Arren spends eight tenths of the movie being grim and then puts on just enough heroism at the end.  The film is concerned somewhat with the way we deal with death but really it's just window dressing to introduce Cob as a man looking to reverse the process.

This also has the distinction of being the most lifeless voice cast I've heard in some time.  Willem Dafoe and Timothy Dalton are fine actors but Dafoe never never speaks above "intimidating whisper" and Dalton is clearly just picking up a paycheck for the film (slightly higher than Dafoe's given the slightest bit more of emotion present, but it couldn't have been much).

Here is my gift to you.  If you want to introduce your kid to the concept of death (and, for God's sake, you do it through a cartoon) then find the full episode of this scene from David the Gnome.  Or heck, just play that scene.  It contains more style, emotion and heart than anything in Tales from Earthsea.  Perhaps Goro was right to desire not to follow in his father's footsteps, it doesn't seem the magic flows in the blood.

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Tales from Earthsea (2011)

Directed by Goro Miyazaki.
Screenplay by Foro Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa.
Featuring the vocal talents of  Matt Levin, Timothy Dalton, Willem Dafoe, Mariska Hargitay, and Blaire Restaneo.

Posted by Andrew

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