Fathers and sons – both onscreen and off – figure in Studio Ghibli’s Tales from Earthsea.
Onscreen, a teenage prince kills his royal dad and makes off with the man’s sword; offscreen, Goro Miyazaki, the son of Japan’s best-known animation director takes over a project his dad initiated but never found the time to direct. Wish fulfillment or mere coincidence? Does a sword equal a man’s career? You be the judge…
Earthsea has the distinction of being both ‘adapted’ (from Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle fantasy novels) and ‘inspired’ (by Hayao Miyazaki’s manga Shuma’s Journey – which itself was inspired by Le Guin’s books). Le Guin is one of those authors whose work transcends the genre they originate in and win mainstream praise. She’s also a creator of imaginary worlds who’s had bad luck in seeing her work translated to the screen, as she details in the unambiguously titled “How the Sci-Fi Channel wrecked my books” at http://www.slate.com/id/2111107/ 
Goro got off to a rocky start going into his dad’s line of work. According to ever-reliable Wikipedia, Le Guin was expecting Hayao to direct the film, a project the elder Miyazaki had wanted to tackle for a long time. When push came to shove however, Hayao was occupied with Howl’s Moving Castle and the film’s producer handed the project over to Goro, whose previous career before storyboarding the film was in landscaping. Neither Hayao nor Le Guin were happy at first: the elder Miyazaki thought his son wasn’t ready for the big time and supposedly didn’t speak to Goro during the film’s planning stages, while the author had assumed Spirited Away’s director would be in charge. Both eventually came around, more or less, with Hayao attending the film’s preview and telling his son the film “was made honestly, so it was good,” and Le Guin’s diplomatic response to Goro, “it is not my book. It is your movie. It is a good movie.” (Le Guin describes her reaction to the entire film – and filmmakers’ tendencies to reduce complex moral issues to a sword-swinging battle of “good” vs. “evil” on her blog at http://www.ursulakLeGuin.com/GedoSenkiResponse.html .)
So how’s the film itself? Even though its evocative poster sports an irresistible (to dragon fans, at least) tagline “there was a time when humans and dragons were one,” the movie itself is a bit thin on actual scenes of the winged reptiles (which are magnificent when they do roll around). In terms of character design and suppleness, the animation itself tends more towards conventional anime than classic Miyazaki. The movie does capture the elder filmmaker’s knack for creating stunning sky visas and constructing imaginary, sprawling metropolises – in this case the decaying city of Hort Town where much of the movie takes place, with bustling crowds moving beneath enormous crumbling archways and fallen aqueducts. Like the elder Miyazaki’s more recent films, there’s an occasional dab of CGI when the camera is trucking in front of a character in motion or moving into the depths of the frame. (A hawk’s POV power-dive towards a castle tower will have you thinking you’re wearing 3D glasses.)
There’s at least one or two too many speeches about how light and dark must co-exist and life is meaningless without death, etc and the film’s soundtrack suffers from the absence of Joe Hisaishi, Hayao’s regular composer; Tamiya Terashima’s bombastic, hit-you-over-the head score seems more interested in competing with the images onscreen than supporting them.
An adventure story is only as good as its villain, and this is where Tales from Earthsea comes alive: Cob, the literally death-defying wizard rocks. Pale-skinned, thin-lipped and speaking in a soft whisper (courtesy of Willem Dafoe), he’s more than a little reminiscent of Michael Jackson – particularly at film’s end when his supernatural powers weaken and he begins decomposing into a hollow-eyed ghoul. (Former Bond Timothy Dalton voices Le Guin’s archmage Sparrowhawk and former stoner Cheech Marin hams it up as Hare – no, he’s not a rabbit, but Cob’s helmet- and goggles-wearing henchman.)
Tales from Earthsea caused no small ruckus in Japan, with its supporters and detractors waging a hard-fought internet battle on the film’s merits and demerits. The same is likely to happen here as Le Guin and Miyazaki fans take sides; let the battle of light versus dark, of good vs. evil, of anime vs. the printed word, begin.