Time will tell whether Goro Miyazaki made a smart move trying to follow in his father's footsteps, but things aren't looking too hopeful. Hayao Miyazaki is the most revered anime director of all time and Ghibli is by far one of the world's most renowned and prestigious Japanese animation studios. The odds were stacked against Goro when he directed his first feature film under the Ghbli banner and it was clear many had already formed their opinions well before Tales from Earthsea [Gedo Senki] saw the light of day. And yet, the first time I watched the film I was pleasantly surprised. Better yet, it still impressed me when I revisited it some time ago.
One thing that sets anime directors apart from their peers is that they dare to be brutally honest. Oshii didn't mince words when he talked about Okiura's adaptation of Jin-Ro and Hayao didn't hold back either when discussing his son's first directorial effort. His comments didn't do Goro any favors, then again Hayao is an old and grumpy man who likes to complain about things that don't fit his worldview. And while he may be a formidable director, I've more than once disagreed with the opinions he shared, so it's best to go into Tales from Earthsea with an open mind and just experience it for what it is: a lovely fantasy film.
The biggest problem is that Goro may not have done enough to set his first feature apart from his father's work, or other Ghibli projects. That's not really a knock against the film itself, but it has invited others to make unfair or unrealistic comparisons. Tales from Earthsea is not a film that could've been made by Hayao, but it sure looks and feels like one sometimes. A more distinctive art style or a less fantastical setting might have improved the film's critical reception (and Goro's reputation). On the other hand, why make those sacrifices when you get the rare chance to develop a project at the heart of the Ghibli studios? No doubt other directors would kill for such an opportunity.
The world is slowly dying. The natural balance has been upset and people are turning dark for no apparent reason. Arren is a young prince, who kills his father without a clear motive. He flees from his kingdom and runs into Ged, a traveling wizard who is investigating the cause of the world's natural imbalance. Ged recognizes Arren's tremendous potential and together they travel the country. One of Ged's adversaries is also interested in Arren's powers and she sends out her cronies to lure the boy to her. By abusing the boy's guilt for his murderous past, she manages to pry him away from Ged.
Tales of Earthsea is a bona fide Ghibli project and carries its trademark look. Not even Hayao's son could change that (Takahata remains the only one with enough clout to go his own way). That's not a bad thing of course, it's just that animation and art style-wise you should have a pretty good idea of what to expect. The more detailed and grittier dragons designs were a nice surprise and the film takes on a bit more of the Western fantasy flavor (no doubt a nod to the source material), but Tales of Earthsea remains immediately recognizable as a Ghibli film. In short, the animation is top notch and there's a unique love and eye for detail in the setting and character designs you'll be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.
The soundtrack is usually a less remarkable aspect of Ghibli films. Sure enough, Hisaishi is a notable composer who delivers quality scores, but of the ones he made for Ghibli, few are very distinctive and/or memorable. That's not to say Tales of Earthsea has the most unique score ever, but the music does have a noticeably bigger impact on key moments, with compositions that jump out and can be enjoyed as stand-alone music pieces. The Japanese dub is even better, with very mature and distinguished voice work that gives characters a unique flavor. One of the best anime dubs I've heard, so just stay away from the inferior US dub, even when you're allergic to the more squeaky Japanese anime dubs out there.
It's a bit uncommon to see such a morally dubious lead character in a Ghibli film. Not that there's no room for ambiguity or nuance in their films, but the leads are usually pretty righteous, not kids who killed their own father without a clear indication. And that's exactly why Tales of Earthsea still manages to stand out, it's not your typical Hayao Miyazaki film, even though it may look like one from afar. Goto keeps sprinkling his film with these little details that help to set it apart from his father's work. And while that's not enough to make it a very original Ghibli film, it at least gives you a good reason to revisit the film from time to time.
Goro Miyazaki's first film is an accomplished work for a first-time director. The biggest problem is that his personal input can be a little difficult to separate from the default Ghibli modus operandi. If you know where to look, it's easy enough to see where Goro made his mark, but people eager to compare Tales of Earthsea directly to Hayao's films are sure to miss it. They'll also miss a stylish and well-executed fantasy film, sporting Ghibli's polished animation, a lovely soundtrack, and a morally ambiguous lead character. Goro's further attempts as a director would be less successful, but at least we'll always have this one. An easy recommendation for anime fans.