Tales from Earthsea (impressions - reviews)

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11 February 2015

Tales From Earthsea - Blu-ray

By Michael Toole

I was intrigued when I heard that Studio Ghibli were targeting Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea books for adaptation. I read a couple of them in my youth, and they're good, sturdy fantasy adventure for young adults. Going from Howl's Moving Castle, with its similar pedigree, to Earthsea seemed to be an attempt to move from strength to strength. But then something funny happened: Goro Miyazaki was named director. Goro Miyazaki, son of the famous Hayao, is a trained and talented architect and landscape designer, and had most recently been curating the famous Studio Ghibli Museum. He was in an odd situation—he'd been around the studio his whole life, and understood animation production quite well, but had never worked in it. The elder Miyazaki, it was reported, wasn't wild about the choice, and was refraining from assisting with the film's production.

The finished film, Tales from Earthsea, did what Studio Ghibli films typically do upon their domestic release—it made a bunch of money at the box office. But reception seemed to be decidedly mixed, and it's astoundingly easy to see why. Watching this film after having decades of those wonderful Studio Ghibli movies like Nausicaä and Spirited Away kind of beggars belief. Goro Miyazaki's Earthsea is stiff and scattered and mediocre. It struggles to make sense, to provide entertaining dialogue and action and a clear plotline. It's incoherent. We expect none of these things from Ghibli films, so watching this one is surprising and instructive. But it's still deeply weird.

In a magical kingdom out of balance with the world, a dispirited young prince murders his father and flees, terrified, from his destiny. He's eventually taken in by the archmage, Sparrowhawk, who seeks to restore that balance to Earthsea. But why is the world out of balance? Because Sparrowhawk says so, that's why; we never get a clear explanation of what being “out of balance” really means. In their travels, the pair are harassed by a slaver named Hare, but soon come to seek refuge with Sparrowhawk's old friend Tenar. She introduces them to a mysterious young girl named Therru. Arren is angry and sad, and Therru is fearful and suspicious, but they slowly open up to each other. They'll have to rely on each other, to brace themselves with Arren's destiny and Therru's mysterious power, to face down the true threat to Earthsea's balance—the failed archmage, Cob.

This movie has men at arms, and dragons, and castles, and swords, and spells, and all that good stuff. It has a wise old mentor and his stupid kid student, a gentle matron and a mysterious girl, a slimy henchman and a menacing wizard. All of the building blocks for a good adventure are right there, but what Goro Miyazaki lacks in making this film is the glue to put them all together. We learn very little about the characters, their pasts, and their personalities. The book is bursting with neat ideas, such as the concept that people have common names and “true names,” secret things of considerable power (Sparrowhawk's true name is Ged, which is why the film's Japanese title is Gedo Senki). True names come into play in the film, but are not explained. Cause and effect are tenuous in this movie, and the characters frequently seem to cease speaking to each other altogether, instead sounding like they're just standing there and giving speeches (everygoddamnbody gets a speech in this movie) in the same room.

And Tales from Earthsea is so boring! It's a 75-minute adventure spread across an increasingly dreary 120 minutes, like a modest pat of cold butter destructively smashed and swiped against a large tranche of warm bread. The camera eye of the film is static; the movie barely seems to move. It's all medium shots of two characters interacting, long shots of travel, and close-ups for the important dialogue. Every once in a while the camera does break free of its moorings, but it happens so infrequently that it's startling when it does. It's as if Goro Miyazaki came into this film unfamiliar with the idea of really using the camera to tell the story. You learn to do something like that in film school, and do it well with experience. Take those things away and you might still have a visually interesting film, but Tales from Earthsea never gets there.

It's not all bad news, though. Goro Miyazaki has, in my estimation, a unique gift for really making scenery come alive in his works. You see it in From Up On Poppy Hill, and you see it in Tales from Earthsea, particularly in the extravagant backgrounds. They bring to mind the great paintings by Maxfield Parrish; Miyazaki and his team don't have the famous artist's crispness, but they share his appreciation for light and shadow, for lush green foliage and big Roman columns. One of Tales from Earthsea's central ideas is the vain struggle for eternal life. Sparrowhawk is intent on teaching his charge Arren that this is futile, and there's a great scene where explains that death is necessary to keep the life cycle going. “Would you bring the entire ocean to a standstill, just to save one wave?” he asks the disillusioned boy.

In turning towards the vocal performances, I have to say that it was interesting to watch the film in Japanese. The role of Sparrowhawk, the wise old archmage, is played by the late, great Bunta Sugawara, who made his name as a steely-eyed, violent, and principled yakuza in the Battles without Honor and Humanity films. He's a fine voice actor, but it's kind of weird—Sparrowhawk looks like him, in a way that I kept wondering was intentional or not. My other comment on the Japanese cast is that the role of the wizard Cob is played by Yuko Tanaka. Cob is an androgynous man, and I don't always buy it when a lady plays a man in anime, but I think it works well here. The dubbed version features wholly forgettable performances by Matt Levin as Arren and Blaire Restaneo as Therru. Timothy Dalton is splendid as Sparrowhawk, the film's anchor, even though he doesn't have a lot to work with. Mariska Hargitay is alright as Tenar, but there's a part of the film where her character says, “This reminds me of the tombs…” and I hear the voice of Detective Benson from Law & Order: SVU and assume she's talking about the Manhattan Detention Complex. Cheech Marin is fine as Hare, driving home the notion that Disney probably just rounded up whoever was on the lot that day to record the film's voices. The biggest strike against the dub is Willem Defoe as Cob. He's a great actor, but not a great voice actor; in Tales from Earthsea, he only really ever sounds like Willem Defoe trying to sound creepy.

Ghibli regular Joe Hisaishi and his distinctive, soaring musical scoring is absent from Tales from Earthsea. Tamiya Terashima does an OK job instead; his music is suitably sweeping and evocative, just not very memorable. I also have a problem with the character designs, by Akihiko Yamashita. He also did character designs for Howl's Moving Castle, and I thought his work was fine in that film. But here, the characters seem simplistic, not fully realized, almost like discount versions of Ghibli designs. They look weird, especially when they're expressing anger. Artistically, the best stuff in Tales from Earthsea is going on in the background.

Should I even mention the Blu-ray? It looks and sounds excellent, and has the usual Ghibli extras of the running storyboard plus a couple of additional tidbits. There's no real insight provided for the making of this film, which is too bad—Goro Miyazaki's next film, Poppy Hill, had a blu-ray loaded with features about how the movie got made. When you have a movie like this, a mixed production with a troubled background, a bracingly honest commentary or documentary can, to a certain extent, save it. There's none of that here, though.

I look at Tales from Earthsea and can only conclude that it was a mistake to try and get Goro Miyazaki to make the kind of film that his father might have made. The elder Miyazaki spent years trying to convince LeGuin to let him adapt Earthsea, but when she finally relented, he was busy with Howl's Moving Castle. Producer Toshio Suzuki wasn't drastically wrong to appoint Goro director—after all, he had the acumen to get the film done, but it's a jumbled mess that doesn't play to his strengths or background. Happily, his next film is much better. We make fun of films like Origin ~Spirits of the Past~, Green Legend Ran, and Brave Story for trying to be mimic Ghibli films without really having the zest to nail the landing. Tales from Earthsea is in the same league as them; it walks like a Ghibli film, quacks a bit like a Ghibli film, but it isn't the total package that the studio's other films are.


The following are representative quotes only

28 July 2006

Lack of 'magic' dooms fantasy epic

By Ayako Karino

4.5/5 stars

[. . .]

So, does Miyazaki's 39-year-old son, Goro, have the same directorial magic? Apparently not, at least it isn't showing in his first cinematic endeavor, "Gedo Senki" (Tales From Earthsea). This latest film from Studio Ghibli lacks the charisma that breathes life into Hayao Miyazaki's imaginary worlds, despite the outpouring of assistance from Ghibli during Goro's first adventure in filmmaking.

[. . .]

Unfortunately, "Gedo Senki" is a that barely scratches the surface of Le Guin's epic. It's no wonder that Hayao was against his son directing the film. Le Guin's novels have been Hayao's favorites for years and have influenced many of his works, including "Kaze no Tani no Naushika" (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds, 1984). Adapting the famous Earthsea fantasy into a film, it seems, was a little too much for Goro--a former architectural consultant and the designer and later director of the Ghibli Museum, Mitaka in Tokyo.

[. . .]

Perhaps the biggest problem is that the director's circumstances are mirrored in those of Arren. Goro is also struggling to overcome his powerful father and find a place in the world--in this case in the director's chair. Alas, "Gedo Senki" proves he has a long way to go on his quest.


31 July 2007

BBC - Movies - Review - Tales from Earthsea

By Jamie Russell

Japan's leading animator Hayao Miyazaki hands his pen to son Goro in Tales From Earthsea, a lacklustre adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin's fantasy series. Set in a world of myth and magic, it follows Archmage Sparrowhawk (Timothy Dalton) as he searches for the cause of Earthsea's failing crops and ecological imbalance, with the help of troubled teen Prince Arren (Matt Levin). Skimping on the breathtaking pizzazz of Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle, it's a surprisingly dreary addition to the studio's catalogue.

Full of wizards and dragons, slave traders and magic swords, this could have been a timely update of Le Guin's '60s fantasy for a generation weaned on Oblivion and World of Warcraft. But Goro lacks his father's light touch and approaches the fantasy with stony-faced seriousness. It's glum and miserable, and it doesn't help that we're thrown into Earthsea at the deep end - Goro's decision to adapt the third book in the series leaves his story with an excess of plot holes and exposition. At times it's about as easy to follow as the Pokemon rulebook. Eventually we learn that evil wizard Cobb (voiced with throaty menace by Willem Dafoe) is robbing Earthsea of its vitality in his search for eternal life.


Short on action and comic relief, the movie rallies itself in its second half with a cute farmhouse interlude - where Sparrowhawk and Arren spend time ploughing and lambing, while teasing out the movie's "green" theme - before climaxing with an epic showdown. As our heroes confront gloopy shapeshifter Cob in his castle, Tales From Earthsea finally lurches into life. Little children will probably be terrified by it but Studio Ghibli devotees will be relieved to see the animators haven't completely lost their touch. Still, not even the most forgiving fan of Asian animation will be spirited away...

Hollywood Reporter

13 August 2010

Tales From Earthsea - Film Review

By Kirk Honeycutt

Bottom Line: A workmanlike, humorless cartoon from Goro Miyazaki, the son of legendary Japanese animator.

Arriving Stateside four years after its Japanese debut in an English-language version exec produced by John Lasseter, "Tales From Earthsea" from Goro Miyazaki, son of legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki, is an artistically arresting yet narratively lame and strangely unfocused cartoon aimed at older children and young adults. For animation fans, the film is well worth the look but no one should expect anything like the magisterial work of the elder Miyazaki. The Disney release will have a brief theatrical run prior to the DVD debut.

The first surprise is the European fairytale setting. It's a vague one though with cityscapes carrying a medieval Roman aspect while the countryside looks more English. The film, written by Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa, derives from a six-book series by Ursula K. Le Guin. This takes place in an alternate medieval reality, a world of islands swimming in a huge ocean called Earthsea. Here wizards help control the balance of nature only that balance seems to be coming undone as nature revolts with pestilence and the appearance of dragons.

The movie gets off to a lurching start as a young prince unaccountably slays his own father, the king, then joining a master wizard known as Sparrowhawk on a journey whose destination and purpose remain cloudy. Throughout the story, the film struggles to depict a balance between forces of darkness and light and between life and death but never quite finds arresting visual means to do so. Nor are the forces that compel the prince to act villainously at all clear.

The vocal cast is a mixed blessing. Timothy Dalton gives Sparrowhawk a vigorous Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts readings and Matt Levin is all youthful angst as the bewildered prince. Yet Mariska Hargitay is virtually listless as a farm woman and possible former love of the wizard while Cheech Marin hams things up outrageously as the henchman of an evil wizard.

Willem Dafoe plays the evil wizard, who is drawn bizarrely to look like the wicked queens in old Disney cartoons. What's that all about?

The climax or rather multiple climaxes tend to be more confusing than liberating.

Sparrowhawk's powers are oddly diminished, leaving the boy to do the heavy lifting. The evil wizard hints he has found a portal between the living and dead but the film never goes there nor is it clear how he intends to exploit this portal to win eternal life. These sequences pale in comparison of the finales of most fantasy films these days where a Pandora's Box of effects gets unleashed.

The layouts have the striking look one associates with Studio Ghibli productions but the character drawings are dull and inexpressive. Meanwhile composer Tamiya Terashima supplies an epic score in the Maurice Jarre tradition.

Honolulu Weekly

18 August 2010

How to Blame Your Dragon

Earthsea’s message is adrift.

Dean Carrico

[Photo caption] Arren is sad because his movie is so boring.

Tales from Earthsea has a lot going for it. Executive producer John Lasseter of Pixar has been a longtime champion of Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio responsible for Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. Both films were directed by animation master Hayao Miyazaki and Tales was helmed by his son Goro. Then there’s the subject matter, adapted from the Ursula K. Le Guin series. With this much talent, what’s surprising is how boring the film is.

There is a balance, it is explained, which exists for all aspects of life: night and day, good and evil, men and…dragons. It seems that long ago, when the creatures of the world were taking career assessment tests, dragons chose sky and fire while man chose land and sea. And that made a balance. But the dragons are fighting each other and the men are discovering that their chosen path is dissatisfying because they can’t actually do anything wizard-like, lest they upset the balance.

How can there be balance, one wonders, when mankind is capable of patricide, child abuse, slavery and an unappreciative disposition toward the circle of life? If there’s a moral to be learned from Tales, it’s that men are jerks.

Curiously, however, there aren’t any dragons after the first three minutes of the movie until one returns at the end, presumably to teach us a thing or two about a thing or two. In the meantime, there’s the maddeningly slow tale of Arren, a boy prince armed with the sword of the father he has killed for no reason. He joins forces with a wizard named Sparrowhawk who attempts to nurture in Arren the importance of nature. Meanwhile, Cob, another wizard, schemes to show the folly of man whilst looking like a woman. There’s a lot being said here, yet it’s in such a mish-mash style that everything gets lost in boredom. The 2006 Japanese version was one of the highest-grossing films of the year but widely derided by audiences. If there’s a message in those facts, it is as lost as the other morals Tales tries to present.

Japan Times

The following are representative quotes only

28 July 2006

Cartoon capers

By Mark Schilling

[. . .]

This includes the latest candidate, Miyazaki's son Goro, an animation neophyte who has directed the new Studio Ghibli film "Gedo Senki (Tales from Earthsea)." Based on the third book in the eponymous fantasy series by Ursula K. Le Guin, the film remixes familiar Miyazaki imagery and themes, but without his knotty, wayward genius. It's like a tribute band playing a new number "in the style" of some departed great -- and delivering everything but the greatness.

[. . .]

Fans of old Hollywood B movies will also recognize many a cliche, beginning with the sneering, mustache-twirling incompetence of Kumo's chief minion, Usagi (Teruyuki Kagawa), who bungles chance after chance to put away the good characters for good. Kumo will also be a familiar figure to fans of the "Wizard of Oz" -- and not only for her Margaret Hamiliton-ish cackle. But I prefer the original -- and miss the originality Miyazaki might have brought to even this often-filmed material.

[. . .]

Los Angeles Times

13 August 2010

Bogged down in 'Tales from Earthsea'

By Gary Goldstein

There's a whole lot going on in the Japanese anime fantasy "Tales From Earthsea," so why is it such a bore? It could be because this 2006 production from famed Studio Ghibli ("Princess Mononoke," the Oscar-winning "Spirited Away"), while covering dungeons and dragons, wizards, witches and the quest for eternal life, is so stiff and humorless it rarely if ever engages its audience.

And, really, who is its audience? Although being released by family-friendly Disney, "Earthsea," directed and co-written by Goro Miyazaki (son of Ghibli co-founder and veteran filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki) and based on a series of books by Ursula K. Le Guin, touches on such grave topics as patricide, child abuse and slavery. It also features deaths by strangulation and immolation as well as a nasty bit with a flying severed limb.

Kids may be less put off by all that, though, than by the film's uninspired hand-drawn animation, visual flatness and elongated running time.

Willem Dafoe has fun voicing the evil and androgynous Lord Cob, but Timothy Dalton's master wizard Sparrowhawk, Matt Levin's troubled young prince Arren and, especially, Mariska Hargitay's ex-priestess Tenar, are plodding cutouts.

New York Times

12 August 2010

A World Loses Balance, and an Allegory Appears

By Stephen Holden

Stolid and humorless, larded with windy speeches about keeping Earth’s balance and other virtuous platitudes, “Tales From Earthsea,” a Japanese animated adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Earthsea” fantasy novels, feels a little like a science-fiction Sunday school pageant. If this starchy, nearly two-hour allegory about human hubris bluntly addresses a historical moment when global warming threatens the planet and pollution is fouling the seas, its chilly, formal tone keeps you at an emotional distance.

Directed by Goro Miyazaki, the son of Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away,” “Howl’s Moving Castle”), “Tales From Earthsea” is a product of the highly respected Japanese production house Studio Ghibli. Hayao Miyazaki was originally supposed to direct it, but he handed the project to his son, who is making his feature debut with the film. Released in 2006 and dubbed into English for its American edition, “Tales From Earthsea”proceeds at a stately pace as its parade of sorcerers, dragons and other fantasy archetypes winds across the screen. The story’s elements are taken predominantly from “The Farthest Shore,” the third book in the series. The adaptation, which brings in scattered elements from the other books in the series, leaves many loose ends.

“Tales From Earthsea” follows the adventures of Arren (the voice of Matt Levin), a troubled young prince who, driven by forces he doesn’t understand and can’t control, kills his father in the opening scene. Stealing his father’s magic sword, he flees into the countryside, where he is rescued from wolves by the movie’s hero, Lord Sparrowhawk (Timothy Dalton), an enlightened sorcerer searching for a way to restore the kingdom’s balance.

Sparrowhawk, from whom Arren rebels from time to time, becomes his mentor and guide on a perilous trek that takes them through Hort Town, a crowded, decaying port city. Mr. Dalton’s kindly, soft-spoken Sparrowhawk is gentler than the typical swashbuckling animated movie hero.

They end up in the castle of the villainous sorcerer, Cob (Willem Dafoe), an androgynous wraith whose vanity and lust for eternal youth suggests Snow White’s stepmother with supernatural ambitions. But to achieve his demonic dream Cob must pry a secret out of Arren. Mr. Dafoe’s insinuating voice evokes Tony Curtis in a 1950s swords-and-sandals epic and gives the film an unintentional shot of comedic juice.

Other characters include Cob’s brutal henchman Hare (a growling Cheech Marin), who runs a slave-trading operation; Tenar (Mariska Hargitay), a former priestess; and her ward, Therru (Blaire Restaneo). Eventually everyone converges at Cob’s place for a prolonged denouement during which the gaunt, serpentine Cob shrivels into an old man who still clings to life.

The movie’s hand-drawn animation and watercolor palette give the story a flat, pictorial grandeur that is pleasant to contemplate though rarely eye catching. But except for the weirdly epicene Cob, the characters fail to transcend generic types, and their expressions tend to be blank.

Instead of a shallow story of good versus evil, “Tales From Earthsea” is a fable about facing your own dark side and accepting your mortality and the limitations of the human condition at a time when technology stokes our fantasies of omnipotence and immortality. As useful as that message may be, it is imparted with more earnestness than passion.

San Francisco Chronicle

13 August 2010

Action aplenty in animated fantasy 'Earthsea'

Peter Hartlaub, Chronicle Pop Culture Critic

There are no cute woodland sprites in "Tales from Earthsea." If there's a Catbus like the one in "My Neighbor Totoro," it has been killed, skinned and is being sold as jerky near the drug dealers and slave traders somewhere in the town square.

Japanese animator Goro Miyazaki, son of "Totoro" and "Spirited Away" director Hayao Miyazaki, is definitely tuned in to his father's darker side. "Tales from Earthsea" gets a PG-13 rating, which Hayao achieved only once, with "Princess Mononoke." The themes and memorable imagery in "Earthsea" will be familiar to fans of Studio Ghibli, but the storytelling and animation are a step behind. This film is too scary for very young children, while older fans are likely to focus on the film not faring well in comparison to the elder Miyazaki's recent work.

"Tales from Earthsea," which is based on characters and stories in Ursula K. Le Guin's books, is a challenging first effort for Goro Miyazaki, who manages a coherent story out of the seemingly unfilmable source material. Arren is a prince, who begins the film by killing his father and running away. He meets a wise sorcerer named Sparrowhawk, and becomes a pawn in a battle between good and evil - the latter forces represented by Lord Cob, a man who looks like a blue-haired Ann Coulter and sounds like Willem Dafoe.

Dubbed in English with the help of Disney, the movie sounds great. The visuals are often striking - particularly when the evil Lord Cob is morphing into black oil and back into a human form, with dead black circles for eyes.

Other scenes are surprisingly empty for a Ghibli film. The animation is a step and a half less fluid than Hayao Miyazaki's most recent film, "Ponyo." And although a few scattered sequences involving a beautifully rendered dragon are breathtaking, the pivotal scenes at Cob's castle often lack detail or seem rushed.

"Tales from Earthsea" has no profanity or sex, but it deserves its rating - and is maybe half a step more harrowing and bloody than last year's "9," the last major animated feature film to earn a PG-13. With that said, the action is plentiful and the story straightforward. Older children who can handle the content will probably be the movie's most appreciative demographic.

Advisory: This film contains gore, dark imagery and regicide.

E-mail Peter Hartlaub at phartlaub@sfchronicle.com.

Seattle Times

12 August 2010

'Tales from Earthsea': Ebbs with narrative unclarity, flows with pleasing visuals

"Tales from Earthsea," the debut anime feature from Goro Miyazaki (son of Hayao Miyazaki), is visually pleasing but narratively unclear.

By Tom Keogh

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 2 stars

'Tales from Earthsea,' with the voices of Timothy Dalton, Mariska Hargitay, Matt Levin, Cheech Marin, Willem Dafoe, Blaire Restaneo. Directed by Goro Miyazaki, from a screenplay by Keiko Niwa and Goro Miyazaki, from a concept by Hayao Miyazaki and based on novels by Ursula K. Le Guin. 115 minutes.

Rated PG-13 for violent images. Harvard Exit.

Abstruse and confusing, "Tales from Earthsea's" story grows increasingly blurry the closer it gets to what should be a deeply satisfying conclusion.

That's not to say this 2006 debut anime feature from Goro Miyazaki, son of legendary anime director Hayao Miyazaki ("Spirited Away," "Ponyo"), isn't moving. It is, moderately so. But with a final act loaded with verbal references to back stories and relationships never quite clarified, "Earthsea" can't deliver its intended emotional punch.

Based on several books in a popular fantasy series by Portland author Ursula K. Le Guin (who described the film as "incoherent" on her website), "Earthsea" begins with promising drama. Set in an imagined world that suggests the late Middle Ages, the fable commences during a surge of imbalance between Earth's elements, between magic and the ordinary, life and death.

Dragons fight in the skies and a young prince inexplicably murders his royal father. That prince, Arren (voiced by Matt Levin in the English-dubbed version opening here), flees to rough country and an even rougher city. There, a wizard, Sparrowhawk (Timothy Dalton), helps him deal with emotional fallout from a mysterious trauma.

Enter Sparrowhawk's old flame, Tenar (Mariska Hargitay), an angry girl named Therru (Blaire Restaneo), a cackling slave trader (Cheech Marin) and a weird villain, Cob (Willem Dafoe), and "Earthsea" brings old battles as well as unfulfilled dreams to hard-won conclusions.

The problem is grasping the full meaning of those things. Despite seeing the movie twice, I remain unclear about ties between Tenar and Sparrowhawk (something about rescuing her from "the tombs"), about Cob's beef with the wizard (much babbling about being left in "the dry land"), and about the full explanation behind Arren's many troubles.

On the plus side, "Earthsea" is visually pleasing, with hot colors in urban settings and cooler, pastel washes elsewhere. The younger Miyazaki's first film won't be a classic, but its stronger achievements are worth a look.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@yahoo.com


5 September 2006

Tales from Earthsea

Gedo Senki (Animated - Japan)


A prince sets out on a magical journey and discovers wizards, witches, dragons and self-knowledge in "Tales From Earthsea," a first feature for Goro Miyazaki, son of the celebrated Hayao Miyazaki ("Spirited Away"). Combined cult reputations of the Miyazaki name, production house Studio Ghibli, and Ursula K. Le Guin, whose "Earthsea" fantasy novels provide script basis here, has generated boffo B.O. domestically where pic has earned $52 million after five weeks. Solid niche earnings await offshore, although this dull and humorless production won't reap the same critical support as the work of Miyazaki Senior.

In a parallel, quasi-medieval world called Earthsea, teenage Prince Arren (voiced by Junichi Okada) of the kingdom of Enlad is compelled by forces he doesn't understand to kill his own father and steal the royal sword which has mystical powers.

He runs away and starts trekking the countryside where he meets Sparrowhawk (Bunta Sugawara), the most powerful wizard in the land, who is on a quest to find out why the Balance in the world is out of whack, producing unexpected appearances of dragons where they shouldn't be and widespread pestilence.

When the twosome hits the bustling burg of Hort Town (whose sunset-streaked port looks like something out of a Poussin painting), they run into henchmen in the employ of evil wizard Cob (Yuko Tanaka), a supposedly male figure who nevertheless looks like a drag queen channeling early Cher. Cob is the source of Earthsea's trouble, but needs to capture Arren in order to complete his nefarious goal of achieving eternal youth.

Additional characters include a motherly one-time witch, Tenar (Jun Fubuki), and her orphan ward Therru (Aoi Teshima), who has special powers of her own.

Story was mostly adapted from the third book in Le Guin's series, "The Farthest Shore," and feels like the middle section of an epic, although buckets of explicatory dialogue are deployed, especially in first reels, to get aud up to speed. Like much work in the fantasy genre, characters must spout a lot of mystical-sounding guff with great solemnity, and there's not a single comic-relief character to lighten the mood.

Unfortunately, despite all the spell-casting, pic is also rather deficient visually in the magic department. The character design is especially flat and undistinguished with inexpressive faces and is, in terms of coloring, severely mismatched with the impressionistically daubed backgrounds. Missing is the ludic inventiveness and whimsicality of Hayao Miyazaki at his best.

Still, pic's general simplicity, fairy-tale quality and G-rated sensibility should help it find a family audience if it's redubbed for export.

Key tech credits include names who have worked on many previous Studio Ghibli releases, but who seem to have been under-inspired by their tyro helmer here.

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (non-competing), Sept. 2, 2006.

Village Voice

11 August 2010

Like Father Not Like Son: Goro Miyazaki's Tales From Earthsea

By Michael Atkinson

This 2006 Ghibli Studios adaptation of the Ursula K. Le Guin novels is the handiwork of first-timer Goro Miyazaki, son of Hayao — and the lack of the master's poetic control shows. Miyazaki movies (Howl's Moving Castle, Spirited Away) are always bewitched by dream logic, but this cookie-cutter fantasy saga — a good wizard and bad wizard battle over the karmic "balance" of the titular kingdom, with a troubled prince caught in the middle — is slack and often incomprehensible, full of vague magical rules and eruptions of nonsense without explanation. There are dragons, but to no significant purpose, nightmares about tar, out-of-nowhere body/spirit schisms occurring only for plot convenience, and so on. Goro Miyazaki certainly lacks his father's charm and humor, though he obviously worked the studio's army of background painters to the bone creating yet another gorgeous medieval Euro-city. And despite the Willem Dafoe–whispered, androgynously evil mage and the incongruous presence of Cheech Marin dubbing the villain's head lackey, Earthsea seems to be a stupendously dull place. It would try the patience of any kid.