Adapted from the first four books in the Earthsea series by Ursula Le Guin, the film contains mysterious dragons and wizards and is about the balance of nature, the duality of existence, the force of beauty and the love of life. Not surprisingly, the film is animated with exquisite imagery that is bucolic as well as fantastical.
Unfortunately, Hayao was busy making Howl's Moving Castle, so producer Toshio Suzuki approached Goro, who impressed him with his design for the Studio Ghibli Museum. Although Goro had steered clear from a career in animation, he couldn't resist making Earthsea four years ago.
"I discovered the Earthsea books about 20 years ago when I was still in high school," Goro explains. "At the time, I was fascinated by the first and second books of this series, A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan. In the first, I profoundly identified with the setbacks suffered by the proud Sparrowhawk. It came close to my personal experience. In the second volume, I felt both the joy and bitterness that Tenar experiences when she is freed from the dark tombs of Atuan."
"When I prepared this film, I buried myself in the entire series, and to my great surprise, the third, the fourth and the rest of the books pleased me even more," the director adds. "This is without a doubt a result of me getting older, but I also believe that social conditions in our current world are the real reason. The world in which we live at present much resembles Hort Town and Lorbanery, where the third book unfolds, The Farthest Shore. The entire world is overwhelmed, frenetically busy, always in movement, but all this seems lacking in meaning and purpose. We understand that people are pushed by the fear of losing everything, as if madness were spreading gradually in the spirit of men."
Meanwhile, Pixar's Gary Rydstrom (Lifted  and the aborted Newt feature), oversaw the English-language version as ADR director. "Pixar and John Lasseter have supervised many of the English-language versions of Studio Ghibli movies, because of a special appreciation for the films, and a desire to see them gain a wide audience in this country," Rydstrom suggests. "We try to stay true to the original story and dialogue, but the translation isn't literal. There is an art to rewriting the dialogue so it sounds natural, and fits the length of the animation. Our job was to reflect the story and tone of the Japanese original."
"It is amazing how much a Timothy Dalton or a Willem Dafoe bring to a role," Rydstrom admits. "Directors often say casting is the key, and it was here. Timothy Dalton brought weight to the character of Sparrowhawk, but always with a charming, paternal twinkle. Plus, his voice is richly beautiful, and is the heart of this version of the film.
"Willem Dafoe has power even when performing in a bare whisper, making Cob an eerie, scary and utterly unique character. When Willem Dafoe as Cob explodes in rage and pain, after being so controlled for most of the story, the effect is primal and visceral. Cheech Marin plays a truly evil character with just the right dose of comedy, and always surprised me with how he made something funny. On top of that, Cheech Marin is incredibly talented at acting while matching the Japanese animation. That is hard to do, let me tell you. Mariska Hargitay exudes warmth and sympathy as Tenar. Matt Levin plays Arren, and captured Arren's woundedness. Blaire Restaneo plays Therru, with a natural intensity, and really impressed us all by singing Therru's song so perfectly and beautifully. She is the soul of this version of the movie."
"The film creates a new world, and is visually striking, in its colors and design. There are inventive moments I've never seen before in animation, which is rare, such as Cob's transformations. Arren's nightmare/dream sequences, in particular, are strikingly unexpected and affecting and psychological! The film is 'cool,' but deeply emotional, too, as when Therru sings her plaintive song, thinking she's alone. The story deals very meaningfully with how it is to feel incomplete and out of balance."
Still, like all Ghibli films, there is enough universality to instill broad appeal. "This is a gorgeous animated film," Rydstrom contends. "The look and animation style of Studio Ghibli is very much a part of this film, but in terms of the story line, I think it stands very much on its own. Like his father, Goro Miyazaki poured his heart into this story. I believe that when films feel like the creation of someone with passion and a unique, even quirky, take on life, audiences respond. I hope the care we put into the English-language version, and the fine work by the great cast, helps gets this movie seen by many people," add Rydstrom, who is close to finishing a project that hasn't been officially announced yet. "But I can say, it's really, really fun."
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.