It's kind of appropriate that GKIDS' new Blu-ray of Goro Miyazaki's Tales from Earthsea (2006) is one of the last entries in their recent wave of Studio Ghibli re-issues: not only is it usually ranked at or near the bottom of Ghibli's catalog, but it was released on Blu-ray by Disney less than three years ago. There's a more personal distinction for yours truly as well: it's the only Ghibli film I've reviewed that I'm completely unfamiliar with -- and that includes the original source material, Ursula K. Le Guin's beloved fantasy novel series whose first entry was published in 1964. That's probably a good thing, though: almost everyone with a connection to the books, including the author herself, seemed to hate it.
Well, perhaps "hate" is too strong of a word, because there's nothing flagrantly awful about Goro Miyazaki's film. Generic? Sure. A little flat at times? Of course. But Tales from Earthsea is still a perfectly capable fantasy adventure with stunning visuals, an outstanding score, and a pace that keeps everything moving at a good clip from start to finish. The main story concerns the fate of young Prince Arren, who flees his castle after fatally stabbing his father, the King of Enlad. Wandering alone in the desert, Arren is rescued by Archmage Sparrowhawk, who takes him to nearby Hort Town; after a violent encounter with slave traders working for the powerful wizard Lord Cob, Sparrowhawk and Arren arrive the cottage of the Archmage's old friend Tenar, who lives with a mysterious young girl. All told, Tales from Earthsea borrows bits and pieces from the first four of Le Guin's novels -- A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, and Tehanu -- and considering the film is over before the two-hour mark, that means a lot has been left out.
Aside from the backlash due to liberal interpretation of its source material, Tales from Earthsea is usually criticized for Goro Miyazaki's last-minute appointment as director while his father was busy on Howl's Moving Castle. Though Goro later directed the warmly-received From Up on Poppy Hill, his involvement here was an obvious case of stunt nepotism: though almost 40 years old at the time of its release, his lack of previous directorial experience -- especially considering the film rights for Earthsea had been pursued by his father for nearly two decades -- makes this good-but-not-great adventure more of a missed opportunity than a failure. But given my affection for medieval sword-and-sorcery and old-school JRPGs like Dragon Quest and early Final Fantasy games, Tales from Earthsea was more of a pleasant surprise than expected. Then again, I'm a total outsider with a slight bias for the genre, so your mileage may vary quite a bit.
Another surprise was that I actually ended up preferring the English dub, which features the likes of Timothy Dalton, Willem Dafoe, Cheech Marin, Mariska Hargitay, Kat Cressida, Jess Harnell, Pat Fraley, and others. That's quite unusual for yours truly...and with no disrespect to the original Japanese track (which is also quite good), the genre is so firmly rooted in Old English folklore that it just seems like a better fit. The English dub's boldest move is swapping genders for the slightly androgynous Lord Cob -- Willem Dafoe stands in for Yuko Tanaka -- but other than that, this appears to be a remarkably faithful translation with a top-notch voice cast. As usual, GKIDS' new Blu-ray serves up an A/V presentation similar to Disney's disc, with a few tweaks and additions that make it a more well-rounded package overall.
Disney's 2015 Blu-ray featured a suitably attractive and balanced 1080p presentation sourced from a recent master, and unsurprisingly GKIDS' new Blu-ray looks more or less identical to my eyes. Though I don't have the tools to do a side-by-side comparison (either on-screen or via captures), I spot checked a handful of scenes from both discs and found no major variances in detail, texture, black levels, compression, bit rate, and color balance. Quite simply, both looked fantastic and virtually flawless -- and with Tales from Earthsea being a relatively recent film, it fared even better than most. Overall, this seems to be a clear case of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", so fans will have no reason to be disappointed.
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Like the Disney disc, viewers can choose between the original language Japanese 5.1 track or an English 5.1 dub in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. Both offer an outstanding and deeply atmospheric mix with crisp dialogue, solid channel separation, plenty of rumbling LFE, and no shortage of subtle touches along the way (although it's worth noting that Disney's Blu-ray offer a slightly more robust 6.1 Japanese track, which was likely crafted in-house and likely unavailable due to rights issues). Naturally, the most enveloping moments occur during Tales from Earthsea's many action scenes, while Tamiya Terashima's epic original score also carries a great deal of weight without overpowering the dialogue. Either way, there's no room for complaints -- it's probably the best-sounding Ghibli film I've heard thus far.
A quick word about the subtitles: although Disney's Blu-ray offered separate English and SDH tracks, neither seemed like a decent fit for the original Japanese dialogue. (They were slightly different in some ways, but clearly based on the English dub.) GKIDS' Blu-ray, like others in their new line of re-issues, includes a separate English subtitle track "for the original language version"; it varies a bit at times but nothing major is changed here. Although the exact accuracy of this translation is unknown, I'll chalk it up to being an improvement since it was provided directly by Studio Ghibli.
GKIDS' static, silent menu interface is smooth and simple to navigate, offering separate options for audio/subtitle setup, chapter selection, and bonus features, with no annoying trailers beforehand and a handy "Resume" function. This two-disc release arrives in a dual-hubbed keepcase with attractive two-sided artwork and a matching slipcover; a nice Booklet is also tucked inside, featuring short reprinted essays by producer Toshio Suzuki and director Goro Miyazaki.
Two "new" supplements have been included; both are Japanese language featurettes created before or during the film's theatrical release, but neither were included on Disney's Blu-ray. "Birth Story of Therru's Song" (30:08) -- cut from the same cloth of the "Film Soundtrack" featurette, mentioned below -- talks about the discovery of young singer Aoi Teshima, who impressed Ghibli executives with a demo CD that included Bette Midler's "The Rose". (Aoi has gone on to maintain a very successful singing career, having also been featured on From Up on Poppy Hill and the highly underrated Wii game Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon.) Meanwhile, a Nippon TV Special (43:52) features voice actor Junichi Okada ("Arren"), who details his experiences leading up to the film's theatrical release in July 2006.
Also included are several items from Disney's 2015 Blu-ray, including the excellent "Birth Story of a Film Soundtrack" documentary with Tamiya Terashima (60 minutes) that's similar to the new featurette, another Storyboard Reel that plays during the film, plus a handful of original Japanese Trailers & TV Spots (10 minutes total) with forced translation subtitles. A short Behind-the-Scenes Featurette (4 minutes) that focuses on the English dub voice actors was also included on the Disney disc, but has not been carried over here. (A real shame too, since I enjoyed the dub so much.)
Goro Miyazaki's Tales from Earthsea is routinely listed as a bottom-tier Ghibli film (if such a thing exists), but I still found it to be a well-paced and highly entertaining adventure with outstanding visuals. Of course, a lot of the film's backlash is due to behind-the-scenes drama -- which includes the last-minute appointment of Goro, against his father's wishes, by Studio Ghibli head Toshio Suzuki -- as well as its departure from the beloved source material, so if you're closely attached to the original books your mileage may vary. As an outsider, though, I was pleasantly surprised while still acknowledging that much of Tales from Earthsea doesn't break any new ground in the well-trodden "swords and sorcery" genre. GKIDS' new Blu-ray offers another overall improvement over Disney's recent disc: although it downgrades the Japanese 6.1 mix slightly and ditches one short featurette, it adds two substantial bonus features and what appears to be an improved subtitle track. Firmly Recommended, especially to those who don't own the film on Blu-ray yet.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.