Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Review: Tales from Earthsea

Coming up: after seeing Eyeborgs I was keen to find out more about the film's visual style and effects - so I'm pleased to report that effects supervisor Christopher Watson agreed to answer a few questions, and I'll post the interview shortly. Meanwhile here's a film with a very different visual style:

Tales from Earthsea is an anime adaptation of Ursula le Guin's quadrilogy, directed by Goro Miyazaki. It mainly focusses on the events of the third book the furthest shore although Tenar makes occasional mention of the events at the Tombs of Atuan. English voice-over artists include Timothy Dalton and Willem Dafoe.

This is a real mood piece. The animation has a zen-like slowness of pace and sense of tranquility - even the most violent confrontations take place against a backdrop of a beautiful lazy sunset and windswept cornfields. The film takes its plot mainly from the events of the third book, the Farthest Shore although there is occasional mention of the events at the Tombs of Atuan. Early on the film seems original and compelling - a prince, Arran, murders his father for no apparent reason then befriends the Archmage Sparrowhawk and runs away with him; Arran now leaves his isolated upbringing and comes face to face with the brutality of his world - particularly the commonplace slavery and slave-trading; he intervenes to prevent the abduction of a girl by slavers; meanwhile we are introduced to le Guin's universe where magic revolves around knowing, commanding or changing the true names of entities, and Sparrowhawk's quest to find out why the magic is disappearing. Dragons in this Universe are related to men but at some divergence point chose freedom over material wealth - perhaps they are Red dragons.

Given the richness of le Guin's universe and these early indications I was really, really disappointed that much of this seems to get forgotten, and the second half of this film collapses quickly into bad-guy-wants-to-get-in-touch-with-good-guy-so-kidnaps-his-girlfriend shenanigans. It's a long time since I read the original trilogy and I will have to go back and read it again now, but my memory is of much more complex plots and characters, as well as a universe with very detailed and well-developed internal logic and a richness of ideas and themes. In a few places, like the metaphysical aspects of the film's ending, there's at least a feeling that the director is hinting at solutions while leaving room for thought, and this ending does at least make some use of le Guin's ideas about magic, but for the most part there is simply nothing to explain.

Conclusion: background 2, foreground 1 after extra time.

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