By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
“Tales from Earthsea” is the first feature film directed by Goro Miyazaki, son of master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. The film had a tough time making it to American screens. First, the father disagreed with the son over the film’s animation techniques. Eventually, they stopped speaking to each other during its production. Then, the film’s USA distribution got held up due to copyright issues.
The wait, however, proves to be well worth it. Goro Miyazaki’s skill sets aren’t on his father’s level, but he shows considerable visual and storytelling flair, marking him as a talent to watch.
The film begins with a raging sea and a mid-air fight between two enormous dragons. In this fantasy world, dragons and magic exist, but magic is rapidly fading away. No one seems to know why.
We soon meet Arren (voiced in English by Matt Levin), a prince of an impressive kingdom. His inner conflicts lead him to run away from home. He finds protection and friendship with the wizard Sparrowhawk (Timothy Dalton), a wise and strong traveling companion.
Their wanderings lead to the house of Sparrowhawk’s old friend Tenar (Mariska Hargitay). Tenar offers them lodging in exchange for some work on her farm. She has also taken in a wild, angry young girl called Therru (voiced by child singer Blaire Restaneo) and is trying to raise her into a confident, stable adult.
The early dragon fight aside, “Tales from Earthsea” proceeds as a small-scale narrative. The larger issue of the fading magic leaves traces in the characters’ lives and words, but for the most part, Miyazaki sticks with a small group of characters. Slowly but surely, the film shows us more and more about their inner lives and secret pains.
Fans of the original “Earthsea” books, written by Ursula K. LeGuin from Portland, might come away confused and upset. The younger Miyazaki took inspiration from a manga adaptation of “Earthsea” written by his father, not from the books themselves. He also chose to isolate one part of a sweeping saga, rather than bring the entire story to the screen.
Miyazaki’s work resembles his father’s in some ways. Both animators depict wide open skies populated with fantastic animals or machines. Both sketch in vivid secondary villains and characters, with bristly whiskers on the males.
For example, the main villain in “Earthsea” is the sinister, androgynous, and sharply-drawn Lord Cob (voiced in English by Willem Dafoe, although oddly enough, the original Japanese soundtrack used the voice of a woman, Yuko Tanaka). Cob’s dirty work gets carried out by Hare (Cheech Marin), a braying, bragging bully of a man who rejoices in the suffering of others.
But Miyazaki’s approach also differs from his father’s in critical areas. His characters, aside from Cob, lack the sharp, defining lines of Hayao Miyazaki’s characters. The softer borders make them a little conventional and bland. Goro Miyazaki is also more comfortable with 3-D effects within a 2-D movie to depict endless staircases or collapsing castles.
In the end, “Tales from Earthsea” isn’t a stone-cold masterpiece like the ones we’ve come to expect from Hayao Miyazaki. But Goro Miyazaki has given us a deftly-executed character study, with magic and dragons. He’s already at work on another film. “Earthsea” gives us every reason to believe that his work will eventually make the elder Miyazaki proud. ♦
“Tales from Earthsea” opens Friday, Aug. 13 at the Harvard Exit Theatre, 807 East Roy Street in Seattle’s Capitol Hill. For prices and show times, consult local listings or call 206-781-5755.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org