Tales from Earthsea

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 23, 2014

The visuals here are Ghibli gorgeous. The particulars are familiar: practically infinite grades of the colour green, lateral tracks with their perfectly distributed rates of fore and mid and background movement, jaw-droppingly beautiful paintings everywhere you turn. Every shot is exactly right, whether moving or static, in camera placement (as it were), or as juxtaposed with surrounding images. Character design and execution are also superb.

It’s tempting to ascribe all this bounty to our favourite international auteur. A certain narrative incoherence might actually support the assumption, but in the end it appears that this not fatal but still definite shortcoming is all Goro’s. Rather than the abundance and grandeur of head scratchers like Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, we have here the impression of a good and finally inadequate stab at rendering Ursula Le Guin’s complex mythology, and the numerous volumes in which it is elaborated. Who are these people, and why? Dragons and disequilibrium and vague references to things that the books dealt with at very great length just never come into clear focus.

As such Tales from Earthsea becomes something of a modern equivalent to those very old (1900-1912) adaptations of literary or theatrical properties. If you don’t know the source the movie doesn’t make sense. Except that those old movies are interesting and valuable for more than just how well they cover the story elements. Similarly, updatingly, we could apply modern sensibilities and value the ambiguities, or pursue the archetypal substance that emerges from the partial obscurities of this adaptation.

The complex relations and tensions between commerce and agriculture, for instance. There are powerful suggestions about sin and redemption, not to mention the dignity of labour and the perfidy of aristocratic hierarchy. This older couple, with their hinted-at and never measured history, these damaged youngsters that fall under their care, are all tremendously evocative.

Plus, also, the scary bits in the movie are really tremendous. Lord Cob is a male woman, or vice versa, and fantastically menacing. Note how effectively they underplay him/her and Sparrowhawk. All that restraint makes the climax really super-climactic! Watch for that one particular shot, near the moment of greatest crisis. You’ll know which one we mean! It’s not perfect, in other words. But it’s plenty sufficient.