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Tales From Earthsea
The directorial debut of Goro Miyazaki, son of the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, 2006's Tales From Earthsea was adapted from Ursula K. Le Guin's popular series of fantasy novels. The story itself is set in the land of Earthsea where magic tends to rule the land and witches, warlocks and wizards are plentiful. Here we meet Lord Archmage Sparrowhawk, the main wizard out to look after the area. He's perturbed that as of late, things have been less than idyllic in his land. Not only are there dragons appearing and causing turmoil all over the land, but the farms are no producing on the levels that they once were. The populace is unhappy and so he takes it upon himself to set things right.
As Sparrowhawk begins his quest, he soon meets up with a young man named Arren. It turns out that he's not ordinary young man, however. Arren is a prince who has fled his family's home after killing his own father. Since this event, he's followed, haunted even, by an eerie creature that appears to be made not of flesh and blood but entirely of shadow and which can, when it wants, act as a sort of doppelganger. Arren accompanies Sparrowhawk on his quest and soon they're on their way to counsel with a powerful witch named Tenar and her young female ward, Therru. What the four champions of good don't realize, at least not initially, is that Lord Cobb, a powerful dark wizard, has plans of his own: he intends to kill Sparrowhawk and Arren both not only to prevent them from completing his quest but to gain for himself the secret to eternal life.
Tales From Earthsea is a lavishly animated film with great use of color both bold and dark and some really impressive backgrounds used in pretty much every scene. The character design might not be as creative as other films from the studio but it too is well done, if just slightly ‘vanilla' in spots but the backgrounds and the fantasy creatures illustrated throughout look great. This is a very attractive looking film which benefits greatly from what was obviously an animation team dedicated to getting all of those little details right. As far as the visuals go, the film scores high marks indeed.
This makes it all the more of a shame then that the story itself is a bit of a mess. The characters are interesting and occasionally we get some nice growth and development from them as they go about trying to set things right in Earthsea, but there are plot lines that converge and then don't and as such, holes appear. The best example is that we never quite get what we need out of Arren's back story to really understand him the way we should for such a key player in the events that unfold. Sparrowhawk is just sort of good for the sake of being good and on the flip side, Lord Cobb is just sort of bad because the movie needs a bad guy. Fans expect more out of Ghibli than that and we don't quite get it here. There's still enough of interest to hold our attention and in the scenes where things slip, and they do slip, we have those aforementioned visuals to rely on, so the picture is far from a disaster. In fact it's fairly entertaining, but it never achieves greatness, it never hits those epic heights you kind of hope that it will and the characters just don't grab us the way great characters should.
A rare ‘PG-13' animated film distributed by Disney in North America, Tales From Earthsea is presented on this disc in your choice of the original Japanese language or an English dubbed version. In the dubbed version Sparrowhawk is voiced quite nobly by Timothy Dalton, Arren by Matt Levin, Tenar by Mariska Hargitay and Therru by Blaire Restaneo. They all do decent enough work here, but it's Willem Dafoe as Lord Cobb who steals the show. Those who don't mind, or even prefer, the English subbed option are in fairly good hands here as it's handled quite well by the voice actors recruited for the picture. Having said that, for this writer's money the Japanese track allows the movie to play out in a more serious and culturally appropriate manner and for that reason is the preferred option.The Blu-ray:
Tales From Earthsea looks quite good in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 1.85.1 widescreen. Colors are reproduced quite nicely, though much of this picture is fairly dark in its coloring so you don't quite get as much ‘pop' with the colors here as you might in another animated feature. The detail is very strong, however, and it easily surpasses what DVD could provide. Black are nice and inky solid, quite deep, without getting muddy or screwing up shadow detail. Lines are reproduced nicely without any shimmering and there are no obvious instances of edge enhancement or noise reduction to note. All in all, this is a strong transfer that moves at a high bit rate and which consistently offers viewers a very nice picture.Sound:
Audio options are provided in English language 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, French language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound and Japanese language 6.1 DTS-HD Master Audio with subtitles provided in English, English SDH and French. The English track is there for those who want it and it sounds just fine in terms of quality but for those who prefer the original Japanese language track, the way to go in this writer's opinion, that lossless track serves the movie well. Both tracks have nice surround effects evident throughout playback, be it the waves crashing against the boat in the opening scene or the flames licking away at a log in the fireplace in quieter moment. These things make you pay attention and take notice to the sound design. The score has nice depth and range and the dialogue sounds nicely balanced and quite natural. There are no issues with any hiss or distortion to note. The movie sounds very good.Extras:
Extras start off with a selection of Original Japanese Storyboards. There's actually just under two hours of material here so if storyboards are your thing, there's a lot to take in. You basically get the entire movie in storyboard form. It is kind of interesting to see how these rough, sketched out ideas compare to the final product. There's audio behind the storyboards as they play out as well as subtitles to translate the Japanese dialogue so they're easy enough to follow. From there we move on to a selection of Japanese Trailers and TV Spots, roughly ten minutes of promotional material.
The Birth Story Of The Film Soundtrack is an hour long piece, in Japanese with subs, about the film that starts off with some press conference footage which then launches into a montage of clips before showing off some interviews with various participants involved in the making of the picture. There's a lot of emphasis here on the sound design in the movie and the soundtrack that was put together for the picture and it's quite interesting. Behind The Studio: Origins Of The Earthsea runs just over four minutes and it's a fairly generic full of clips from the movie and interviews with the producer and a few others that talk about the books that inspired the movie and explain how this project came to Studio Ghibli.
Outside of that we get some menus, chapter selection, previews for a few other Disney properties and, given that this is a combo pack release, a DVD is included inside the keepcase containing the movie and identical extra features. The Blu-ray case fits inside a nice looking and attractive cardboard slip cover.Final Thoughts:
Tales From Earthsea is a middle tier effort from Studio Ghibli, never competing on the same sort of level as their more established classics but worth seeing for fans of what they do or those who just enjoy a good animated fantasy film in general. If the story never catches fire, at least it always looks great. As to the Blu-ray itself, it's got a decent enough selection of extras and both the audio and the video score high marks, making it a pretty good package overall. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.