An adaptation of elements from four of the acclaimed Earthsea Cycle, author Ursula K. Le Guin has carefully guarded the property for years and only allowed Ghibli to use the material after being impressed by Spirited Away. Now, I harbor no illusions about the ease, or lack thereof, of adapting written material to film. The Lord of the Rings trilogy had 683-minutes to lay out the events of three novels and even Peter Jackson had to snip or alter bits here and there to make the leap from ink to film flow (earning him the ire of many a Tolkien loyalist). The young Miyazaki, however, seems to want his cake and eat it too: Earthsea moves at the leisurely pace of a book, but tries to stay faithful to the source material by cramming the highlight reel from four separate novels into a two-hour film. It's not a pretty sight.
We enter the realm of Earthsea to a ship being tossed about at sea; the impotence of its weather controlling wizard to calm the storm plus the dragons fighting to the death high above indicate that the planet is in magical turmoil. A "balance" has been disrupted by something or somebody and all goodness is being leeched from the world. The ship, it turns out, is a royal one, carrying the king and his son, Arren. For reasons that aren't well articulated, Arren stabs his father, steals his magic sword and flees the ship, ending up in a desert being chased by wolves. Resigning himself to be dog chow, the young man is instead saved by Sparrowhawk, an itinerant wizard who is among the few to retain some power. On a quest to find out what's disturbing the balance, Sparrowhawk invites Arren to join him and the pair set off it the direction of the bustling seaside city of Hortown.
With wizards and magic swords, dragons and decaying walled cities, Earthsea has so much potentially exciting material to work that it's almost painful to watch most of it be squandered. After Arren pisses off the local thugs Sparrowhawk's ladyfriend, Tenar, takes them in at her farm and here the movie stalls for a good long while as the characters plow the fields (literally--this is not some figure of speech), eat soup and exchange sparse, cryptic dialog about the troubles of the world. Even after the inevitable endgame between Cob, Sparrowhawk and Arren is set I was so thoroughly unimpressed with the world of Earthsea that I didn't know who to root for: it's such a boring place maybe Cob's tipping of the scales is just the shake up this planet needs.
If there's a silver lining to the whole thing it's Disney's choices for the English voice cast, which includes both well known actors ( Timothy Dalton, Cheech Marin, Willem Dafoe) and some not-so-well-known names ( Matt Levin, Blaire Restaneo) who all fit their characters well. Marin was particularly entertaining as Cob's obsequious henchman, Hare, and delivered his lines with the perfect amount of oily sleaze. I also enjoyed Dalton's noble Sparrowhawk, but I think it was more for the images my imagination conjured up in the vacuum of any other stimulation of a staff-wielding, spell-slinging 007 squaring off against Robert Davi as the drug dealer Sanchez in License to Kill. Oh, where the mind will roam.
Unfortunately, a quality voice cast just can't dig Tales from Earthsea out from the very, very deep pit it's fallen into. There was a sort of morose End of an Era quality to the whole viewing experience that I could see on the faces of every Totoro shirt-clad, Ponyo purse-clutching audience member in attendance that day. I too am a fan of the ever-versatile Studio Ghibli's work, but in this case there isn't a magic spell in all the fantasy landscape that could make me give half a damn about anything going on in this movie.