August 22, 2021
Tales from Earthsea (2006)
Grade: 77/100

Director: Gorô Miyazaki
Stars: Matt Levin, Timothy Dalton, Willem Dafoe

What it's about. A anime film from acclaimed Studio Ghibli, set in a Middle Ages alternative world called Earthsea. Villages are troubled by famines, plagues, slavery, drug addiction, evil sorcerers, and other worries. Arren (voiced by Matt Levin) murders his father, a good king, and flees into the countryside.

Arren encounters powerful magician Ged (Timothy Dalton), who recognizes potential in Arren and his magic sword. Slavers attempt to kidnap Therru (Blaire Restaneo), a passionate teenage girl, but she is saved by Arren. The slavers, led by cynical Hare (Cheech Marin) then kidnap Arren. He is soon rescued by Ged.

Ged and Arren travel to the farm of Tenar (Mariska Hargitay), a love interest for Ged. Because it is a movie, Therru (and no one else) also lives on the farm. Evil wizard Cob (Willem Dafoe) learns that Ged is at Tenar's farm. He kidnaps both Tenar and Ged, leaving Therru distraught and on her own. Cob also turns Arren into his zombie apprentice.

Therru encounters Arren's mute doppelganger, who gives her Arren's magic sword and tells her to go to Cob's castle and evoke Arren into action against Cob. She does so, which leads to the final reel confrontation in which the good guys win (as usual) and Cob bites the dust.

How others will see it. Compared to the great acclaim given to, for example, Spirited Away (2001), Tales from Earthsea was a bust. It was an unprecedented commercial and critical miss from Studio Ghibli, previously regarded as the finest anime movie studio in the world.

The film was nominated for Best Animation Film by the Japanese Academy Awards. But this does not compare with the festival honors bestowed on Spirited Away, which won an Oscar.

Worldwide box office was a respectable 68M, but that was about one-fifth that of Spirited Away. At, the user votes total 37K, comared to 688K for Spirited Away, and the user ratings are 6.4 out of 10, again unfavorable relative to Spirited Away which has a lofty 8.6 user rating.

What accounts for the drop-off? For one thing, Spirited Away was directed by the anime master himself, Hayao Miyazaki. Tales from Earthsea was directed by Hayao's son, Gorô.

But a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. A greater concern, at least for parents, is the violence in Tales from Earthsea. It is not a film that small children should watch. As such, it lacks the whimsical charm characteristic of Hayao's output. While that doesn't bother me, since the film is compelling in other ways. But it does not have the feel of a Studio Ghibli effort.

User reviews at indicate the biggest problem the film faces, at least from the sci-fi community. Tales from Earthsea is named after a book by Ursula K. Le Guin. Her Earthsea novels, written between 1968 and 2001, have a wide following. Fans of the novels are almost universally disappointed. The film goes borrows elements from the Earthsea books, but also goes its own way.

One viewer comments the film is "confusing and doesn't make sense." For example, why does Arren murder his father? Why is he followed by a doppelganger? Why does the formerly mute doppelganger speak with Therru? Why does Therru turn into a dragon, and back again, and if she can do this anytime, why wait until the show is over? Why do Arren and Therru have "real" names, and what is the significance of those names? How did Arren acquire his magic sword, and why can only Arren wield it?

Apparently, the Earthsea novels answer some of these questions. We can compare the film with 2001: A Space Odyssey, which can make little sense to the uninitiated, e.g. What do all those hooting monkeys have to do with anything?

How I felt about it. I have not read the Earthsea novels, so, at least for me, they neither enlighten the plot or provide a comparison. The film's violence doesn't bother me, because I don't watch movies with children. The fact that the movie is different from Studio Ghibli's prior output, or directed by the master Hayao himself, is also not of great concern for me.

In fact, I am fine with Gorô going his own way, because imitation is inferior to innovation. If the movie is more like Star Wars than Spirited Away, so be it. After all, Star Wars (1977) is a really good movie.

What Tales from Earthsea does have is suspense. I found it fairly gripping, even though I (along with everyone else) is unsurprised that Cob never quite gets around to actually killing Ged whenever he has the opportunity, and instead is ultimately vanquished. But it is entertaining all the way there, even if the final scenes are not quite satisfying. Is Therru a plucky girl, or is she a powerful dragon? You tell me.