Adaptation Adventure

Blu-ray Review: Tales from Earthsea

February 20, 2015Ben MK

Wizards of the coast...

Even before he made NausicaƤ of the Valley of the Wind, Hayao Miyazaki had it in mind to write and direct a feature-length adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin's beloved five-part book series, "Tales from Earthsea." The senior Miyazaki's ambition was never realized, but 22 years later, his son, Goro, chose to make his directorial debut by bringing this sprawling fantasy adventure to the big screen. The result is a film that follows in the grand footsteps of movies like NausicaƤ and Howl's Moving Castle. But as beautiful as it is, is Tales from Earthsea worthy of being called a Miyazaki masterpiece?


The Film Le Guin's first entry in what has become known as the "Earthsea Cycle", titled "A Wizard of Earthsea", saw its initial publication in 1968 and focused on the coming-of-age of a wizard named Ged, also known as Sparrowhawk. Over the course of the next thirty-odd years, four more books set in the realm of Earthsea — a place populated by wizards, witches and dragons — would follow. And while Tales from Earthsea draws its inspiration from all of these stories, it's two in particular — "The Farthest Shore" and "Tehanu" — as well as Hayao Miyazaki's 1983 manga, "Shuna's Journey", that serve as the primary source material for Goro Miyazaki's film version.

The film isn't a straightforward adaptation though, but rather more of a mash-up. For unlike the novels, its story traces the journey of 17-year-old Arren (Junichi Okada/Matt Levin), heir to the throne of Enlad, who has fled his home following the slaying of his father. The catch? It was Arren himself who wielded the sword that killed his father. And while his motives for doing so are never made clear, we're led to believe it has something to do with the dark magic of the evil Wizard Cob (Yuko Tanaka/Willem Dafoe), whose unquenchable thirst for immortality has had a ripple effect throughout Earthsea, raising the suspicions of the Archmage Ged (Bunta Sugawara/Timothy Dalton). In order to put a stop to Cob's mystical machinations, however, Ged will need not only Arren's help, but also the help of an old friend, a former witch named Tenar (Jun Fubuki/Mariska Hargitay), and a mysterious young girl named Therru (Aoi Teshima/Blaire Restaneo), who may just be the key to restoring balance to Earthsea.

Tales from Earthsea is certainly a valiant attempt at emulating Hayao Miyazaki's style of filmmaking, but how well does Goro Miyazaki's film debut stack up against the legacy of his father? It's a bit of a loaded question, unfortunately — especially considering that the younger Miyazaki had no formal filmmaking education prior to embarking on this ambitious endeavor. And to answer it fairly, one has to bear in mind not only the novice talents of the filmmaker in question, but also the movie's merits as a standalone tale and its faithfulness as an adaptation.

The good news is that the film is far from the disaster that some have made it out to be. Granted, it has its share of flaws; among them, it's occasionally disjointed, suffers from an egregious lack of world-building and the main villain fails to make a lasting impression. However, longtime fans of Le Guin's work should be fairly satisfied with its treatment of the books' mythology. At the same time, newcomers to the material — though they may sometimes feel left on the sidelines by the way Miyazaki and co-screenwriter Keiko Niwa pepper the narrative with obscure references to the novels — should still find Miyazaki's take on medieval fantasy-adventure at least modestly entertaining.

Audio/Visual Fidelity Although Tales from Earthsea may not live up to the same high expectations as other Studio Ghibli productions, the same can't be said for its A/V presentation, which is the stuff home theater demos are made of. Looking absolutely astounding, this hi-def transfer shines with crisp edges, vibrant colors and endless blacks, bringing to life into each breathtaking frame of the movie, from the gorgeous, hand-painted backgrounds to the character animations. And it sounds just as good as it looks, with a pair of DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 English and Japanese soundtracks that reproduce every sound effect with the utmost precision, from howling winds and crashing waves to the clickety-clack of horses' hooves. Dialogue is also nicely prioritized, and composer Tamiya Terashima's score sounds fantastic, as do the featured songs by Aoi Teshima, "Therru's Song" and "Song of Time."

Special Features Disney's Blu-ray release includes a DVD copy of the film, plus three hours of Original DVD Bonus Features. Kicking things off are the Original Japanese Storyboards, which presents all 115 minutes of the film in storyboard form, with Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 audio and English subtitles. 10 minutes of Original Japanese Trailers & TV Spots follow, showcasing three Special Trailers and three Trailers for the film. Then comes The Birth Of The Film Soundtrack, a 1-hour made-for-television piece (originally broadcast around the time of the Japanese theatrical release) that charts the development of the film's score and features interviews with composer Tamiya Terashima, producer Toshio Suzuki and director Goro Miyazaki, as well as an overview of the various types of instruments used. Lastly, there's Behind The Studio: Origins of Earthsea, a brief, 4-minute look at Tales from Earthsea's journey from the page to the screen. As an added bonus, both the storyboard version of the film and the selection of trailers are presented in HD.

The Bottom Line Tales from Earthsea may not earn the right to be called a bona fide Studio Ghibli classic, but that doesn't mean moviegoers should take a pass on the film. It still qualifies as worthwhile viewing for fantasy-adventure fans, and animation fans especially will enjoy the gorgeous visuals on display. But if you still need a couple more reasons, Disney's Blu-ray release — which serves up a superb audio and video presentation, along with a set of interesting extras — is pretty convincing.  Ben Mk

Disc Breakdown
The Film  —  
Audio/Visual Fidelity  —  
Special Features  —  

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