Sunday, February 15, 2015

Tales From Earthsea Blu-ray Review

Reviewed by Sean Ferguson
An epic animated adventure directed by Goro Miyazaki, “Tales From Earthsea” features the voices of Timothy Dalton, Willem Dafoe, Cheech Marin and Mariska Hargitay. Based on the classic “Earthsea” fantasy book series by Ursula K. Le Guin, “Tales From Earthsea” is set in a mythical world filled with magic and bewitchment. In the land of Earthsea, crops are dwindling, dragons have reappeared and humanity is giving way to chaos. Journey with Lord Archmage Sparrowhawk, a master wizard, and Arren, a troubled young prince, on a tale of redemption and self-discovery as they search for the force behind the mysterious imbalance that threatens to destroy their world. Featuring a timeless story and magnificent hand-drawn animation, “Tales From Earthsea” is now available for the first time ever on Disney Blu-ray.

Film (2 1/2 out of 5 stars)
Based on the novel by Ursula Le Guinn, Tales from Earthseais the latest import from Studio Ghibli thanks to Disney. The novel was adapted and directed by Goro Miyazaki, son of the legendary Hayoa Miyazaki, who had himself tried for years to get the rights to the novel only to have to cede it to his son when he was unable to helm the movie due to working on another film. The film is set in a mythical world that we are repeatedly told is out of balance which is causing a lot of problems. If you haven't read the book before viewing this film like me, then you should be prepared to not expect to know much of what's going on. The film is delivered in a way that seems like it should be the second one in a series that we've already seen.

The movie begins with sailors witnessing a fight and the death of a dragon, but we don't know why they were fighting or what it imports to these men or the world as a whole. The news is delivered to the King of Enlad (Brian George) which is added to other troubling reports such as his son Arren (Matt Levin) has gone missing. The King's day gets even worse when he is killed by Arren (for no known reason), who also steals his father's sword and runs away. During his escape, Arren is almost killed by wolves, but he's saved by a mysterious stranger named Sparrowhawk (Timothy Dalton) who invites Arren to journey with him.

During their travels, they encounter some thugs that work for a local evil wizard named Cob (Willem Dafoe) as they are trying to capture a young girl named Tehanu (Blaire Restaneo) who runs away from Arren after being saved as she doesn't like his nihilistic attitude. Of course, later in the film, Sparrowhawk and Arren reunite with the girl once he stops at his old flame's farm for help and learns that Tenar (Mariska Hargitay) is taking care of Tehanu. This quartet will be the only hope that this world has of restoring the balance, but before that can happen, Arren needs to confront the darkness within himself.

While I enjoyed Tales of Earthsea for the most part, I had a lot of issues with it. The movie skips a lot of relevant plot details that would have made it easier to understand. It's also painfully slow for a good portion of the film, which is fine if something interesting is happening onscreen but that's not what happened. It also doesn't help that both Arren and Tehnau are fairly unlikable characters even though we are supposed to be rooting for them. Both are seriously damaged characters, but they are balanced out by Sparrowhawk and Tenar who are much more pleasant to spend time with.

All of the actors did a great job with their roles, especially Dalton and Dafoe who carry the movie. I don't understand why Willem Dafoe was hired to play the part of a woman (a role that was also originally voiced by a woman), but he does a great job in the role. It makes no sense since the character of Cob still looks like  woman in the film and he voices the role as a male, but whatever. I really liked the fantasy elements of the film and I'd love to see Studio Ghibli do another film in this kind of vein, but one that is less contemplative and more exciting and coherent
Video (5 out of 5 stars)
Despite my issues with the film, there's no denying that this 1080p transfer looks stunning. This film has a very painterly visual palette that's captured perfectly in this transfer. Colors look amazing, especially during the sequence where the sun slowly goes down in a glorious display of Technicolor beauty. Detail is very sharp and the images haven't had all of their grain scrubbed away by DNR. There's no sign of scratches or any other form of print damage either. This is a fantastic transfer by Disney.  
Audio (5 out of 5 stars)
Tales of Earthsea's DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 mix is also exceptionally good which is nice to report considering that I was just lamenting the lack of a good surround track on Studio Ghibli's recent release of Porco Rosso. This mix offers a wide range of power with the sounds of the dragons, magic, and ocean waves being delivered with power, while also offering some nice and subtle atmospheric effects as well. Dialogue is clear and easy to understand and Dalton and Dafoe's lines sound perfect. Tamiya Terashima's score is also presented very well and blended seamlessly with the dialogue and effects.
Extras (3 out of 5 stars)
I hate to say it again, but the special features included continue to be the Blu-ray's weakest link and it's a shame. The one good spot is "The Birth of a Film Soundtrack." Unfortunately it's presented in standard definition along with the "Origins of Earthsea." Here's what you will find in the extras:
  • Original Japanese Storyboards - This is a feature length storyboard version of the film comprised of the original storyboards.
  • Behind the Studio: Origins of Earthsea - At four minutes long, you have to wonder why they even bothered to include this, but I guess something is better than nothing. Here's a very short look at the genesis and production of the film.
  • The Birth Story of a Film Soundtrack - At sixty minutes long, this is the best extra included and the best I've seen so far on a Studio Ghibli release. This featurette covers Tamiya Terashima score for the film and his interaction with the director and the studio. It's interesting to see the evolution of the score and how the composer, director, film, and studio come together to create something new.
  • Original Japanese Trailers & TV Spots - Previews and three trailers.
Summary (4 out of 5 stars)
Tales of Earthsea's story is pretty weak and unsatisfying, but there's no denying that some of the visuals are beautiful and the voice actors (especially Timothy Dalton and Willem Dafoe) are excellent in their roles. The blu-ray itself offers fantastic video and audio quality, but the extras could be better with the exception of "The Birth of a Film Soundtrack." If you are a fan of the book or Studio Ghibli, then I'd recommend the film, but to all others I'd suggest just renting it.

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