January 7, 2018 – I finally got around to seeing this last week, 12 years after it was made (2006) because I bought the DVD in a local pawn shop for a dollar. I was familiar with the title because Ursula K. Le Guin is a famous writer. This animated film is based on her Earthsea books, and a lot of the story is said to be very similar to that of the graphic novel, “The Journey of Shuna” by Hayao Miyazaki.
What I didn't realize, until I did some research is that this film is directed by Gorô Miyazaki, who also directed another animated film I like very much, “From Up on Poppy Hill.” He is the son of the famed director Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away”).
This film feels like an environmental film as well as a spiritual film. It opens very darkly with a scene of dragons fighting, followed by a scene of Arren, the son of the king, murdering his father. Arren flees, and is later rescued from wolves by a wizard, Sparrowhawk, the Archmage of Earthsea. Sparrowhawk becomes a mentor to the boy as they travel along.
Sparrowhawk once again rescues Arren when he is captured by slavers. He takes the Arren, who has fallen ill, to a friend, Tenar, a witch and farmer, where Arren recovers his strength. He and Sparrowhawk help work the farm, along with Tenar's young daughter, Therru. Arren and Therru are attracted to each other, but Therru is also repulsed by Arren's disregard for human life, including his own.
Sparrowhawk has been investigating strange events, the fighting dragons, crops that won't grow, magic that no longer works and the mysterious slave trade. The world is out of balance, and it won't be right until that balance is restored. It turns out that Arren is part of this sickness in the world. His soul has been split and he is haunted by his other half, the good half, who stalks him like a ghost.
The sickness in the world is traced back to the dark magic of Lord Cob who is upsetting the balance by trying to attain immortality. Slavers working for Lord Cob had been trying to capture Arren and Therru. Later, he is able to capture Sparrowhawk and Tenar.
This all leads to a showdown between Lord Cob, Arren, Therru and Sparrowhawk at Cob's castle. The ending is not what I was expecting because it involves a magical element that seems a lot like a Deus ex machina escape. Nevertheless, I did like the ending, since it resolved many issues and because it is not as dark and sombre as some other parts of the film. It is a satisfying ending.
I liked this film despite its problems, some of which can be attributed to a first-time director who might have been over his head on this one. The beginning of the film has some scenes that seem disconcertingly unconnected, with jarring cuts between. The final scenes have a plot element that seems to come out of nowhere. Yet, on the whole, the film does seem to make sense and ring true.
Doing some research, there also appears to be a problem with the English dub of this film, which is the one I listened to. For instance, a male voice, that of actor Willem Dafoe is given to Lord Cob, but a woman does the voice for this same character on the Japanese soundtrack. It appears that, in order to accurately reflect the Earthsea source material, the voice for this character should be a woman's voice, or at least it should sound like a woman. As far as the movie goes, it probably doesn't make much difference, but I feel Ursula K. Le Guin's vision of Earthsea should be respected.
Ursula K. Le Guin herself reportedly wanted Hayao Miyazaki to direct this film, and neither she nor Hayao Miyazaki (who was busy directing “Howl's Moving Castle” at the time) thought that Gorô Miyazaki was experienced enough to do this story credit. Le Guin also didn't like all the changes to her stories in this film.
I understand the criticisms of the film, but I was captivated by the power of this story, and the fact that it so readily embraced some really dark elements. There are parts of this film that are disturbing. Parts of it would definitely disturb or even frighten children. What gives this movie its power are its universal themes about the balance of nature, the dark and light in each of us and the fact that death gives life its meaning.
For those like me, who appreciate Japanese animation, this is a film worth seeing. I do not think it is worth spending a lot of money on this film, but if you can pick up a DVD of it for a dollar or two, or check it out from the library, or stream it or rent it cheaply, it is worth a look. This film rates a C+.
Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.