It has been reported that Ursula K. LeGuin granted Studio Ghibli the rights to her EARTHSEA series largely based on her love for Hayao Miyzaki's work. When Miyazaki was not available to direct the film, the studio hired his son Goro instead. Hayao publicly said his son was not ready to write and direct his first feature film. They should have listened to the master.
The land of Earthsea is out of balance. Dragons have been spotted over the sea. The King walks to his study and is stabbed by a young man who turns out to be his son Prince Arren (Matt Levin, BLADES OF GLORY). Arren flees and winds up in the desert where he meets the Archmage Sparrowhawk (Timothy Dalton, HOT FUZZ), who takes the young man under this wing. When they arrive at the city of Hortown, Arren has a run in with slaver traders led by Hare (Cheech Marin, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN), who try to enslave the scared young woman Therru (Blaire Restaneo), who is the ward of Sparrowhawk's old friend Tenar (Mariska Hargitay, TV's LAW & ORDER: SVU), a former witch. Sparrowhawk soon learns that the evil wizard Cob (Willem Dafoe, ANTI-CHRIST) is behind the turmoil in Earthsea. The male wizard who looks like Cher needs Arren to obtain immortality.
My description does its best to make sense of this slog of a tale. While it's good to keep secrets to have them revealed latter, this film hides key information about the rules of its world. Dragons are compelling because they're dragons. This film introduces them at the start like they will play a key role and then abandons them for most of the rest of the film. Wizards and witches have lost their powers for some reason, but it's never explained. How Arren figures into Cob's plot is vague at best. And there is something important about knowing someone's real name, but that's never even addressed until the plot all of sudden makes it seem like its important. The film really feels like a sequel where you should have seen the preceding entry.
Arren's savage act is compelling, but he's pursued by some supernatural presence that is hardly explained and one wonders whether forces out of his control drove his actions or whether his profound sadness drove him mad. With such a solemn central character, the overall film becomes LORD OF THE RINGS filtered through an EMO kid's diary. There is a lot of talking and explaining and crying. Even in a tense moment where Sparrowhawk and Arren are in Cob's lair, the action stops for a grand speech about life and death. Um, the bad guys are just going to stand around and let you discuss philosophy?
Technically the film is sloppy. Whether it's a problem with the English dub or the original film I'm not sure, but the dialogue is often redundant. Characters say something like "He wants me to follow him" as the character begins to follow the person. Because the storytelling leaves us so disoriented, moments that aren't supposed to be funny elicit laughs. Music swells to celebrate the introduction of Sparrowhawk, but at that point we don't know him from Adam. The story completely lacks all intentional comic relief, which could have helped a little with pacing. Outside of Sparrowhawk and Cob, the character design is generic, which creates confusion in wondering if two separate characters were really one and the same.
The best part of the film is Cob. Dafoe's voice work is perfect. The character designs for the shape-shifting character are unique and unsettling. And while the details are muddy, at least his motivations are made clear.
While one can see the influence Hayao Miyzaki's work — especially PRINCESS MONONOKE — had on his son, Goro lacks the characterization, timing and whimsical touch of his father. As with any Ghibli project there is some great acting moments and beautiful art to be seen, but the story has been completely lost in translation.