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Note: This review is of the Japanese-language version. I have not seen it in English.
Tales from Earthsea is a beautiful, sweeping fantasy film with believable characters and an intriguing backdrop. It also received nowhere near the accolades it deserved, but I'll get to that later.
Tales from Earthsea has drawn criticism from fans of Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea novels, and from LeGuin herself, for straying from the spirit of the books. I've never read any of the Earthsea novels, but I can only assume these complaints are legitimate. However, as an uninitiated viewer, I was engrossed by the movie and fell in love with the world it portrayed. It feels like a living, breathing world, and the story of this movie feels like a single scene on a larger tapestry. There are many more tales from Earthsea to tell, but sadly, I don't think the movie was successful enough to allow it.
I loved the characters. Arren, the sheltered, troubled prince; Sparrowhawk, his worldly mentor; Cob, the wicked, shadowy sorcerer and his bullying minion, Hare. These are stock fantasy characters that we've all seen before, but they're given enough weight and complexity, and played with enough emotion, that they feel like real people.
This was Goro Miyazaki's debut as both a writer and director, and he imbued his worth with beauty, grandeur, and wonder. I'm not exaggerating when I say this is one of the best fantasy films I have ever seen.
And the critics hated it. Japan's Raspberry Awards named it "Worst Movie" of 2006 and Miyazaki "Worst Director". It has less than a 50% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And I may just have an aberrant taste in movies. But I think the main reason Tales from Earthsea failed to win an audience is because Miyazaki is not his father.
(Continued in the comments section)
The title is the best advice for this movie. The biggest problem with this movie is that it can't decide what it is about, and thus winds up being about nothing. The movie starts off with a powerful battle between two dragons during a raging storm, which is explained as a rare and foreboding sighting. Unfortunately, we brush right past this, never looking back. We then are introduced to a plague that is ravaging the countryside, which is ignored, a balance of the world that is threatened, also ignored, and then we see the King murdered by an assassin, which is also ignored.
Now, the movie should have stopped here, and it could have weaved all these things to make an interesting story, where all these problems are related.
The main character is probably the best personification of this movie. At times he's suicidal, sometimes he a kick-ass psychotic, but most of the time he's just an unlikable pansy. He fit's this movie because, like the plot, he has no consistency.
The movie then goes through a few more plot points that are ignored like slavery, drug abuse, and the importance of balance with nature. It isn't until the middle of the movie that I even got a sense of conflict. It winds up to be some big bad who wants to use the protagonist to gain immortal life, which is never explained as a bad thing. The author of the book pointed this out well, by introducing a Big Bad, the movie is able to just have the hero kill her and have the movie be resolved without actually overcoming some overarching theme, or character flaw.
By the end of the movie you could just tell that the director was just throwing in the towel with one of the most asinine Deus Ex Machina that I have ever seen. It goes so far beyond Ass Pull that it reaches up to the small intestines.
I suppose a common defense for this movie is that all the unexplained plot points are explained in the books, which I have heard are really good. However this is not a defense. Movies should be able to stand up on their own merits. You don't see it opening with "Warning, You should read the book first". While I am not criticizing supporting material, which I think can really add to the experience, the movie should be able to stand up on it's own two legs; or is it too much to ask that the movie be good on it's own without relying on the success of other people's works?
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