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It's interesting to discover that Tales From Earthsea, the latest Studio Ghibli title to be distributed by Disney, was originally released in 2006. Especially since it seems like in four years, someone could have found a way to make its story a little more interesting. (But then again, maybe that's why it took four years to get shown in the States.)
Operating enthusiastically on the liberal side of the divide between casual viewers of Japanese animation and diehard anime (and more specifically, Miyazaki) fans, Tales From Earthsea is every bit as beautiful and well-rendered as its predecessors. But its pastoral, unhurried approach to adapting Ursula K. Le Guin's final two novels in the Earthsea series feels about as exciting as if Peter Jackson had decided to shoot the Lord of the Rings trilogy from the point of view of the tree people, the Ents, only to smash cut to the action at Mordor at the last minute in order to provide a too-late dramatic payoff to their glacial indecision.
The story follows Arren (Matt Levin), a young prince who murders his father, and flees the kingdom with only the King's sword in tow. Rescued from being eaten by a pack of wolves by Sparrowhawk (Timothy Dalton), Arren joins the wizard on his trek to a nearby city, and eventually, the home of Tenar (Mariska Hargitay), who has in her charge a passionate but socially-awkward girl named Therru (Blaire Restaneo). The four of them live together, simply, for a time, but an evil wizard named Cob (Willem Dafoe) sends his minions to take Arren and attack Sparrowhawk.
Using Tenar as bait, Sparrowhawk races to Cob's castle to rescue her. Discovering that Cob has manipulated Arren into joining him, Sparrowhawk is captured and sentenced to death. In the meantime, Therru races to help Tenar, Sparrowhawk and Arren, and must infiltrate the castle in time to stop Cob from killing all three of them, and in the process, destroying the balance between man and nature forever.
To clarify, Earthsea wasn't directed by Hayao Miyazaki, but his son Goro, but the younger filmmaker certainly has the same eye for breathtaking detail as his father: vast landscapes unfold on screen, vistas explode with color, and the overall world comes alive thanks to subtle details and small, evocative movements. But the languid and unconventional pacing of Hayao's films always seem to be in the greater service of telling a compelling story, and whether it's because of the source material or Goro's comparative inexperience as director, this film is often maddening in its lack of momentum, if only because its measured pacing begins to feel redundant, especially after the dialogue drives home its idea that man's kinship with nature or "the elements" is far more important than corporeal concerns.
For example, there's a beautiful moment of connection between Arren and Therru, when he goes to retrieve her from the fields only to find her singing to herself. While the tune is indisputably heartbreaking, it goes on far longer than necessary, at least to drive home the contrast between her certitude and his indecision, not to mention the unique balance each of them provides the other. It's probably true that I could admire endlessly the wafting reeds that the characters wade through or pore over the disconnected ruins of cities that Arren and Sparrowhawk visit, but only if they were a screen saver; in a film that's longer than two hours, that simply isn't enough to keep me emotionally engaged, particularly in a case where it seems as if there would be plenty of real story to tell.
I admit that I love the way in which Ghibli and its filmmakers use the medium of animation - to tell stories in ways that they otherwise could not be told, and without the compromise of cutting to stupid jokes or unnecessary action sequences that are expressly designed to delight and distract. But there is a real and interesting story here, and the lengths the film goes to being cryptic about its mysticism betrays its potential depths: during one sequence I felt like I was watching one of those Star Wars prequel scenes where all the characters do is talk about bureaucracy and parliamentary procedure, and during another, the characters' interactions had the tragic repression of the relationship between Chow-Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
One moment the film is profoundly felt and the next it's dryly expository, and what's most disappointing is that this variety never resembles a full range of dramatic notes but an erratic collection of scenes that don't come together cohesively. But rather than feeling disjointed and uneven, the film maintains a surprisingly consistent, ambivalent tone, so that even when there are supposedly enormous stakes to the characters' choices, we're no more roused than we were when they were plowing or preparing a meal.
If it sounds like I feel strongly about the film not working, I'm not; Miyazaki gives me little reason to get invested enough to care intensely about how well or effectively it's pulling off what it's attempting. And that, ultimately, is the problem: the film appears to have been thoroughly contemplated, considered, and executed, but it isn't deeply felt – a work of art produced by an expert who possesses superlative technical skill but no passion. Again, whether this is a matter of staying true to the source material (which I haven't read) or finding the right filmmaking voice to bring it to life on the screen, I can't say; but Tales From Earthsea is precisely the sort of film that people admire instead of enjoy, and it's a shame, because it proves that you can put together something competent, artistic, and even beautiful, but that doesn't mean anyone will necessarily ever want to watch it.