Film Review: Tales from Earthsea

A wizard and his apprentice battle an evil necromancer who is searching for immortality in this animated adventure drawn from the writings of Ursula K. Le Guin.
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A fantasy set in a world of dragons and magic, Tales from Earthsea marks the debut of director Goro Miyazaki, the son of famous animator Hayao Miyazaki. Drawn from a series of six novels and several short stories by science-fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin, the film also displays the characteristics of Studio Ghibli animation: meticulous backgrounds, swooning orchestral scores, vivid action sequences, and the arrival at some point of blob people and other grotesque figures. Missing is Hayao Miyazaki's light touch, his sense of play and whimsy, replaced here by earnest sermons and some distressingly poor character movements.

The story takes place in a pre-industrial world that has been in decline for decades. Gigantic ruins dot landscapes, and diseases plague both cities and farms. Their spells no longer potent, wizards are viewed with suspicion by society. Sparrowhawk (voiced by Timothy Dalton), a Lord Archmage or wizard leader, travels incognito, searching for a reason why the world is out of balance.

Arren, a young prince, falls victim to evil magician Cob (Willem Dafoe), who secretly hypnotizes the boy into killing his father, the king. On the run, Arren discovers first-hand a cruel world filled with thieves and slavery. The boy befriends Sparrowhawk and travels with the wizard to a farm owned by Tenar (Mariska Hargitay). Along with the young orphan Therru (Blaire Restaneo), they work the land in harmony with nature until they are spotted by Cob's evil minion Hare (Cheech Marin).

Sparrowhawk, his powers deserting him, and Tenar are imprisoned in Cob's dungeon. Still under a spell, Arren helps the evil sorcerer in his quest to achieve immortality by destroying the balance of nature. It's up to little Therru to free Sparrowhawk, Tenar and Arren from their real and figurative prisons in time to stop Cob.

While it's never especially hard to follow, Tales from Earthsea covers a lot of narrative ground. Most of the plot comes from The Farthest Shore, the third novel in Le Guin's series, although bits and pieces from other "Earthsea" works are scattered throughout. Characters are forever explaining how and why things exist, and debate about reincarnation and personal sacrifice takes up a lot of room. On a pure plot level, Tales from Earthsea asks a lot from younger viewers.

As could be expected from a Studio Ghibli film, details of the physical world—the wind rustling through grass, clouds casting shadows over fields—seem effortlessly real and beautiful. The characters are much less interesting, 2D realizations that move with a jerkiness that recalls the low-budget TV animation of the 1960s. How much of this can be attributed to Goro Miyazaki, a former landscape designer who took over the Tales from Earthsea project after his father abandoned it, is open to argument.

Tales from Earthsea received mixed reviews when it opened in Japan in 2006. Le Guin, who had resisted previous attempts to animate her work, was ambivalent about the film on her website. The author was not so selective about live-action adaptations, authorizing an "Earthsea" miniseries that aired on the Sci Fi cable channel. That series was one reason why Tales from Earthsea was delayed here, although cagey viewers might note the lack of enthusiasm on the part of Disney, which is opening the film in selected markets with a minimum of publicity.