Does Tales From Earthsea, the latest Studio Ghibli release brought to North American theaters by Disney, have the Miyazaki touch? Well, yes and no.
Based on the Earthsea novels by Ursula K. LeGuin, Tales From Earthsea was originally intended to be directed by Hayao Miyazaki — but he was ultimately too busy with Howl’s Moving Castle (also based on a magical fantasy by a woman writer). Tales From Earthsea came to the screen as the directorial debut effort of the great filmmaker’s son, Goro Miyazaki. (Goro was reportedly the elder Miyazaki’s inspiration for the young boy in his recent Ponyo.)
Tales From Earthsea isn’t the most successful Ghibli film ever — nor, for that matter, is Howl’s Moving Castle. But both films have that strange blend of wonder, discovery, and melancholy that one associates with the Miyazaki name. There is always something beautiful and strangely persuasive to look at on the screen, a world with a lived-in reality.
Tales From Earthsea is a flawed but ambitious film, full of potent mythic images — battling dragons; a shadowy doppelganger — but one that fails ultimately to resolve those images in a satisfying way. Characters include a Jedi-like wizard-hero named Sparrowhawk, a troubled young prince named Arren, a proud girl named Therru, a sturdy farm woman named Tenar and a spooky, androgynous evil necromancer named Cob. A climactic showdown at Cob’s castle includes some striking visuals, but the murky narrative doesn’t hold together.
I love the ruins of this world. Wandering in the desert, young Arren comes upon ruined hulks of great galleons adrift on seas of shifting sand. Why are they there? Was this desert once an ocean? Were the ships wrecked on a sea floor that is now desert? Or did some catastrophe turn the sea to a desert overnight, leaving the ships stranded? Or were the ships somehow flung here from far distant waters? Perhaps readers of LeGuin know the answer. I don’t need to know. The image and the puzzle are enough.
Then there’s the city of Hortown, where a perpetual bazaar goes on in the streets of a half-ruinous metropolis that is part classical, part medieval — one of the most striking imaginary locations I have visited in any animated film, or perhaps any film of any kind. Everywhere in this world the heroes encounter roofless walls of mossy stone, farmhouses abandoned to an invisible, intangible shadow spreading across the land. When they cross a river, there are ruts in the banks on both sides, bespeaking the countless feet that have crossed there before.
There is a sadness in these ruins and in the sense of an encroaching shadow — an elegiac sense of loss and nostalgia that a friend tells me is characteristic of Japanese culture. There is a term for it: mono no aware, which seems to mean literally “the pathos of things” but the sense of which is something like “poignant awareness of transience.” One is penetrated by the impermanence of goodness and beauty: beauty that is is fading, and what once was is gone forever. A Western work in which many readers will recognize this sensibility is Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. For Christians, this nostalgia and melancholy is both a consequence and a symptom of fallenness: Our hearts long for paradise lost, and in this fallen world even such scraps of paradise as we reach for slip through our fingers.
At the same time, Tales From Earthsea exhibits an earthy appreciation for life — not just in the abstract (though there’s plenty of that), but in good, honest work, in love and friendship, in life lived in harmony with one’s fellows and with the earth. At Tenar’s farmhouse, young Therru lovingly looks after a mother ewe and her newborn lambs, and Arren sets his shoulder to plowing fields and helps mend a wooden gate smashed by the villains. Magic, Sparrowhawk explains to Therru, is a precious resource to be used sparingly, not to upset the balance of the world. The necromancer Cob, a long-haired glam type who might be Howl’s evil cousin, offers a sickly, dissolute counterpoint to Sparrowhawk’s square-jawed, robust earthiness. You couldn’t imagine Cob mending a gate by hand.
If only the characters weren’t so generic. Sparrowhawk, voiced in the Disney dub by Timothy Dalton, sounds a lot like Qui-Gon Jinn from Star Wars: Episode I as he talks about the great balance, but even the modicum of humanity and humor that Liam Neeson brought to Qui-Gon is entirely missing here. Powerful and authoritative as he is, Sparrowhawk lacks self-awareness; when he finally squares off against Cob, who’s ideally voiced by Willem Dafoe, you just know from Dafoe’s slyly insinuating tones that Cob’s got the upper hand.
I enjoy Sparrowhawk, and I enjoy the fearless, capable, independent Tenar (Mariska Hargitay). But I enjoy them for the archetypes the embody; not for a moment that I recall are they more than types. (Still, for what it’s worth, at least they do work as archetypes, which is more than I can say for most of the characters in Howl’s. Sparrowhawk never stops to think about what he wants; Howl has no idea what he wants. Between the two, I prefer the former.)
Arren (Matt Levin) and Therru (Blaire Restaneo) are more problematic. Arren’s story starts with a mystery: Why does he commit a heinous act, one that seems bound up in a strange duality affecting his character? I don’t insist that everything be explained, but I think we needed more of an explanation here. At least he has a story arc, which is more than Therru gets. She’s hardly more than a collection of attitudes.
A couple of problematic themes bear mentioning. Tales From Earthsea expounds on LeGuin’s opposition to the idea of life after death. While the claim that this life is not meant to last forever and that death is a necessary part of life in this world is compatible with Christian belief, the movie goes further in suggesting that this life is the only life we have, and that passing life on to others is the only sort of “immortality” available to us.
Also troubling is the primeval mythology according to which humans and dragons are apparently descended from a common origin, parting ways when dragons chose “wildness and freedom” and mankind chose “wealth and power.” While I don’t automatically object to dragon-myths that cast dragons as something other than the evil enemies of mankind, in such a primeval myth of human origins, almost an alternate creation-and-fall myth, using dragons in this way seems too directly subversive of the Christian story for comfort.
These aren’t trivial concerns, but they essentially come down to a few lines of dialogue and a brief, puzzling scene at the climax. Take Tales From Earthsea for what it is, an intriguing though flawed effort, and its pleasures — celebration of simple, honest life and work; stunning landscapes and half-ruined cities and habitations; strong female characters and unsettling villain — can be enjoyed for what they are, and its weaknesses critically set aside.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.