Tsunderin: When looking at the Ghibli library, there’s one movie that seems to stick out like a sore thumb. A film that is only spoken of in whispers so as to not invite its wrath upon you. Or at least a film that clearly stands out as the black sheep of the family. No matter how melodramatic your interpretation, the general consensus on Tales from Earthsea seem to be “ugh, that movie.” Going into it, I honestly didn’t see how this movie could have been bad. Sure, it was a little long, but a fantasy setting with magic and dragons? It’s cruise control for interesting. To say that Earthsea was uninteresting wouldn’t be entirely true, but the issues in pacing and storytelling hinder the universe’s interesting history to the point of disrepair.
It starts out well enough: the world of Earthsea is being thrown into disarray as its magic is slowly disappearing, famine is breaking out, and there are various other catastrophes, all of which land on the King of Enlad’s plate. His advisor, a wizard named Root, states that once the world was in balance, but due to a portion of mankind choosing material wealth as the most important thing, the other portion left and became dragons to retain their freedom, causing a schism between the two sections. Most importantly, if the balance between the two groups is resolved, there would be a possibility of the catastrophes ending and magic slowly returning. Unfortunately, before the King has much time to dwell on this he is murdered on the way back to his room by his son, Prince Arren, who then steals his father’s sword and escapes the city’s walls.
During his not so majestic escape, Arren is attacked by wolves and almost killed, but is saved at the last minute by a mage who calls himself Sparrowhawk. Taking a liking to the boy, Sparrowhawk escorts him to the near-by town and tends to his wounds and empty stomach, but Arren is restless. He seems to believe he is being followed by someone—which, if you just murdered someone would be a logical fear to have—but rather than remaining hidden, Arren decides to attack a slave trader and his associates.
Note that while of course slave trading is terrible, it’s completely legal in the town. So this kid that should be trying to remain on the hush-hush is causing ruckus with one of the highest ranking persons in the town and probably breaking a few laws in the meantime. It’s safe to say that Arren has no idea what he’s doing.
With some kind of skills (apparently he’s better at fighting armed men than fighting wolves), Arren sends the slavers running and saves the young girl (Therru) they were trying to abduct. However, she is disgusted at his lack of concern and respect towards people’s lives and promptly leaves him. After this encounter, Arren is exhausted and, like the genius that he is, ends up falling asleep outside on a stairway. By the time he wakes up, he has been stripped of his possessions and abducted by the same slavers he just beat up. But again, he is saved by Sparrowhawk who then takes him to a remote ranch owned by a woman named Tenar who is also an acquaintance of the mage. While Arren is left to get to know Tenar and Therru, who as it turns out was living at the ranch as well, Sparrohawk returns to investigating the reasons for the decline in magic.
It’s at this point too that we’re introduced to something that looks like an actual plot. It’s revealed that the slavers are working for a powerful mage, Cob, and that Cob’s true desire is to lure Sparrowhawk to his castle and kill him. Years ago, Sparrowhawk banished Cob to another realm so the flames of revenge burn bright now that he has returned to the mortal plane. However Cob’s plans do not end there, he also wants to obtain eternal life and is convinced that in order to do so he needs the help of Arren. So in true antagonist fashion, Cob sends his minions to abduct Tenar and personally seduces Arren into joining his side with false kindness and lies about Sparrohawk’s motives. With his claws firmly planted into Arren’s psyche, Cob also obtains an important piece of information: Arren’s “true name”.
Within the universe of Earthsea, people and objects have many names. When a true name is known, however, that gives a wizard power over them. A powerful wizard like Cob having knowledge of such a thing, well… let’s just say that Arren is batting zero for a thousand in smart ideas.
Hearing that Tenar has been abducted, Sparrowhawk quickly returns to the ranch only to find that everyone is gone except Therru. He gives her Arren’s sword—which had previously been lost and sold in the town’s market—telling her to give it to the prince should he return, before going after Tenar. The young girl is drawn on a journey of her own though as a vision of Arren comes to her, leading her to Cob’s castle. After mistakenly thinking that the phantasm was actually Arren, it explains that it is merely a physical manifestation of Arren’s fears, hatred, and doubts and that it had been the one stalking him this entire time. He gives her his true name before disappearing, leaving Therru to find where Arren had been holed up beyond the castle walls.
After an extremely lucky infiltration of the castle, she finds Arren moping about in his room. It seems as though Sparrowhawk had been captured by Cob, and by Arren’s fault, too, as the young prince had tried to stab Sparrowhawk before realizing the error of his actions. It’s all good, though, because Therru has their back and now they’re in love. After exchanging their true names they run off to find Cob before Tenar and Sparrowhawk are executed. Following the trend of the film, they arrive just in time and fight off the slavers. Just as it seems Arren is getting the upper hand over the evil wizard, Cob captures Therru and flies off to the highest point of the castle and begins to tear apart the castle stone by stone. Dodging falling debris, Arren once more makes it to Cob, but not before the wizard strangles the life from the poor girl. In a shocking twist, it seems it was Therru who was the secret to eternal life rather than Arren, so she hadn’t actually died. In fact, she turns into a dragon and helps defeat Cob! She and Arren both escape the crumbling castle and return to Sparrowhawk and Tenar who managed to make it to an idyllic field, perfect for narration.
The film ends with the men bidding the ladies farewell and Arren preparing to turn himself in for his father’s murder. And… what? That’s the end? Yes. That’s the end to this confusing-as-shit movie.
MadameAce: This was one of the hardest movies in the Ghibli library to watch, and that’s probably why this review is so late—because I kept refusing to finish it. Like most Ghibli films, the animation is stunning, and the settings are fantastical, but the movie falls flat in so many other ways. The most obvious failing is in Arren’s character. I would be more willing to put up with a poor plot if the characters gave me some reason to like them, but from Arren, I get nothing.
Considering that the plot doesn’t seem to start until after the fiasco with the slave traders, you would think that the first portion of the movie would be establishing characters and setting up what kind of people they are. You would be wrong. It more or less runs like a series of scenes in which Arren does some things, most of which don’t make much sense. At the very beginning of the movie, he murders his father, nearly gets killed by wolves and needs rescued, passes out, almost takes drugs from a complete stranger obviously trying to con him, and… what about any of this is supposed to be endearing? Arren doesn’t seem to have any knowledge on the workings of the world, despite the fact that he is a prince who should probably have been educated on some of this. He’s even surprised that there are people who deal in slave trade. That definitely would be something that should come up in his lessons, especially if it’s a part of their world’s economy.
I also like how he’s capable of murdering his own father with a straight face, but watching drug addicts die in an alleyway makes him ill. I want to say that maybe all the bad things in his life—on the run for murder, ending up in a strange new town, drugs—are piling up on him, but it doesn’t seem like that. He just seems depressed. And his reactions to his depression is more or less :(, because that’s how depressed people totally are. At this point in the movie, we still don’t know why he killed his own father, which is a big deal for his characterization. Even if it’s not justifiable, I would just like a motivation. We find out the reason—possession, kind of—at the halfway point of this movie, which is way too late, because then we spend the first half of the movie wondering why we should like him. After he confesses what’s happening to him to Therru, suddenly his character makes a lot more sense, and he’s certainly more likable because of it. But until then, it’s just a confusing mess.
But being more bearable doesn’t make the movie good. Even following this revelation, the plot still consists of things happening to Arren and Arren only reacting to these things when the plot allows. He simply goes through the motions, lacking motivation or will. After Cob captures Arren and learns his true name, he can control Arren at will, and whatever Cob says Arren spontaneously believes, no matter how shady. That might be because Cob’s controlling Arren, or it might be because Arren’s an idiot. At this point it doesn’t matter. Arren’s not a character; he’s a prop. It doesn’t help that Therru has to save Arren at the end, and Arren is completely incapable of helping himself.
Even the slave traders know how useless he is and have a laugh at his expense, and I have the impression the movie wants me to disagree with them. Considering Arren’s storyline, I hesitate to call him the main character, even though the movie insists that he is. This is more Therru’s story.
Tsunderin: And before you get any ideas, this isn’t subverting any ‘damsel in distress’ tropes by making the guy in distress. Maybe it could have been that story had the characters been better developed, but in my opinion I don’t see Therru as having any real agency. At least not enough agency to make me think that she’s doing things from any inner strength on her part.
It’s a shame because she does have a certain strength that some Ghibli heroines just don’t show. Therru had the strength to leave her abusive family. And then the strength to allow someone that was trying to help her (Tenar) into her heart despite being nothing but hurt by anyone else. She has the power to stand up for her beliefs even if she puts herself in danger for it (I know I wouldn’t be brave enough to stand up against a dude that just kicked the crap out of three armed men with a sheathed sword) and a wariness around her that protects her and those she cares about. And this all goes out the window for Arren. Despite her initial dislike and suspicion for Arren, all it takes for her to trust him is for him to cry at her singing and then tell her that he killed his dad. I have no doubt in the novels this movie was pulled from that the two of them would have had more time to develop their relationship, but in the fast pacing of the film this is completely ridiculous. Even if he admits that he may be possessed, why would she trust him so easily after what she’s seen of him? Besides the few days he’s spent at Tenar’s ranch, every instance of Arren has been dangerous and unsettling and for someone that has worked so hard to get away from that it’s completely counterintuitive to let all of her walls down at once.
Furthermore, after Arren makes his way on the scene, everything she does is to move his plot along. She is the person on which he can spout his exposition onto. She’s the one that brings him his sword so he can defeat Cob. Even if technically she deals the killing blow, she is nothing but a walking-talking deus-ex-machina for the purpose of making Arren look cool. Sure, she’s a dragon herself, but it doesn’t mean anything to the audience, because we don’t know what the dragons are really. She’s simply a dragon so Arren can have a cool girlfriend and so that he doesn’t need to feel any consequences to his actions of allowing her to get killed. Their entire relationship has no stakes because in the end, neither of them really makes the leap to actual characters. No, I think the real main characters of this movie should have been Sparrowhawk and Tenar; at least they’re interesting.
MadameAce: Unfortunately, the two of them are shoved into the background, when they happen to be the most likable characters in the entire movie. And though I really wished otherwise, the villain, Cob, has to be the worst villain imaginable. Sure, he’s clichéd and evil, and I’ll admit that that kind of character, while normally not well written, can be fun. I like evil characters, because they normally get such a joy out of being pure evil, garnering power, giving stupid villain speeches, etc. That’s not the case here.
Cob has to be worse than Arren. I may not like Arren, but at least his voice had some emotion to it. Cob speaks in this monotonous, bored drone. Constantly, it never stops. Not only is it monotonous, but it’s also lower pitched than everyone else’s voice, making him harder to hear. He wants to be immortal—because that’s what all villains want—yet he doesn’t seem to have emotions regarding death. He wants immortality, because he’s afraid to die and no longer recognizes the value of human life. Okay, then, but what about it? Due to the fact that Cob won’t actually form or act out his emotions regarding his fear, it’s hard to understand his character, and it makes him more two-dimensional than everyone else. He’s a villain, because the story wanted a villain.
Cob and Arren are meant to be foils for each other, because until Therru rescues Arren, Arren is very much the same as Cob. This also just serves to make Arren an even more terrible character, because he and the bad guy are exactly the same, instead of the bad guy being who Arren would turn into should he chose the path of evil.
Cob’s character also sends a harmful message to viewers. He comes across as a transsexual. Cob has long silky hair, he wears lipstick, and paints his nails. He’s also the thinnest, daintiest character until the very end when he turns old and fat, because the plot wanted him to turn old and fat for some reason. In the process of learning Arren’s true name, he almost seduces him, as well. Arren himself isn’t a towering force of traditional masculinity, so placing him against such a feminine male villain isn’t as apparent as it would be in other things. The fact remains, however, that our villain still comes across as a queer character, and I almost feel as though his queerness is there to highlight his villainy.
Tsunderin: Beyond the characters and the flaws in the plot, Earthsea is plagued by terrible pacing and a trend of over-extending itself. The setting and the bare bones of the story have such high hopes to take their audience on a thrilling adventure, but when grandiose dreams are muddied with too much focus being placed on unimportant plot points rather than points that would help the viewers’ understanding—especially a viewer who is not familiar with the pre-established universe of Earthsea—the entire film becomes confusing and immersion is broken almost instantly.
I almost feel bad that this film turned out so poorly and that it just wasn’t us that thought so (it won the “Worst Movie” award in the Bunshun Raspberry Awards in 2006), because there were such high expectations to live up to. Just by looking at the director’s name, this much should be clear: Goro Miyazaki. Yes, Hayao Miyazaki’s son is the director of this movie. I can’t even imagine the pressure he must have been under—especially this being his directorial debut at Ghibli. In the end, however, it’s still not a very good film and if they could have toned back the epic-ness and the scale of their story, many of the simple mistakes they made could have been avoided.
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I think it was well written Arren is confused not evil and he was also under Cobs control. The reason he has no real life smarts is because he was sheltered all his life because he is the prince.
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