Japan's leading animator Hayao Miyazaki hands his pen to son Goro in Tales From Earthsea, a lacklustre adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin's fantasy series. Set in a world of myth and magic, it follows Archmage Sparrowhawk (Timothy Dalton) as he searches for the cause of Earthsea's failing crops and ecological imbalance, with the help of troubled teen Prince Arren (Matt Levin). Skimping on the breathtaking pizzazz of Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle, it's a surprisingly dreary addition to the studio's catalogue.
Full of wizards and dragons, slave traders and magic swords, this could have been a timely update of Le Guin's '60s fantasy for a generation weaned on Oblivion and World of Warcraft. But Goro lacks his father's light touch and approaches the fantasy with stony-faced seriousness. It's glum and miserable, and it doesn't help that we're thrown into Earthsea at the deep end - Goro's decision to adapt the third book in the series leaves his story with an excess of plot holes and exposition. At times it's about as easy to follow as the Pokemon rulebook. Eventually we learn that evil wizard Cobb (voiced with throaty menace by Willem Dafoe) is robbing Earthsea of its vitality in his search for eternal life.
"LITTLE CHILDREN WILL PROBABLY BE TERRIFIED"
Short on action and comic relief, the movie rallies itself in its second half with a cute farmhouse interlude - where Sparrowhawk and Arren spend time ploughing and lambing, while teasing out the movie's "green" theme - before climaxing with an epic showdown. As our heroes confront gloopy shapeshifter Cob in his castle, Tales From Earthsea finally lurches into life. Little children will probably be terrified by it but Studio Ghibli devotees will be relieved to see the animators haven't completely lost their touch. Still, not even the most forgiving fan of Asian animation will be spirited away...
The film is released in two versions: dubbed and in Japanese with subtitles. The cast listed here relates to the dubbed version.
Tales From Earthsea is out in the UK on 3rd August 2007.