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Tales From Earthsea -- Film Review

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Arriving Stateside four years after its Japanese debut in an English-language version exec produced by John Lasseter, "Tales From Earthsea" from Goro Miyazaki, son of legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki, is an artistically arresting yet narratively lame and strangely unfocused cartoon aimed at older children and young adults. For animation fans, the film is well worth the look but no one should expect anything like the magisterial work of the elder Miyazaki. The Disney release will have a brief theatrical run prior to the DVD debut.

The first surprise is the European fairytale setting. It's a vague one though with cityscapes carrying a medieval Roman aspect while the countryside looks more English. The film, written by Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa, derives from a six-book series by Ursula K. Le Guin. This takes place in an alternate medieval reality, a world of islands swimming in a huge ocean called Earthsea. Here wizards help control the balance of nature only that balance seems to be coming undone as nature revolts with pestilence and the appearance of dragons.

The movie gets off to a lurching start as a young prince unaccountably slays his own father, the king, then joining a master wizard known as Sparrowhawk on a journey whose destination and purpose remain cloudy. Throughout the story, the film struggles to depict a balance between forces of darkness and light and between life and death but never quite finds arresting visual means to do so. Nor are the forces that compel the prince to act villainously at all clear.

The vocal cast is a mixed blessing. Timothy Dalton gives Sparrowhawk a vigorous Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts readings and Matt Levin is all youthful angst as the bewildered prince. Yet Mariska Hargitay is virtually listless as a farm woman and possible former love of the wizard while Cheech Marin hams things up outrageously as the henchman of an evil wizard.

Willem Dafoe plays the evil wizard, who is drawn bizarrely to look like the wicked queens in old Disney cartoons. What's that all about?

The climax or rather multiple climaxes tend to be more confusing than liberating.

Sparrowhawk's powers are oddly diminished, leaving the boy to do the heavy lifting. The evil wizard hints he has found a portal between the living and dead but the film never goes there nor is it clear how he intends to exploit this portal to win eternal life. These sequences pale in comparison of the finales of most fantasy films these days where a Pandora's Box of effects gets unleashed.

The layouts have the striking look one associates with Studio Ghibli productions but the character drawings are dull and inexpressive. Meanwhile composer Tamiya Terashima supplies an epic score in the Maurice Jarre tradition.

Opened Aug. 13 (Walt Disney Studios)
Production companies: Studio Ghibli, Nippon Television Network, Dentsu, Hakuhodo Dymp, Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Cast: Timothy Dalton, Willem Dafoe, Matt Levin, Cheech Marin, Mariska Hargitay, Blaire Restaneo
Director: Goro Miyazaki
Screenwriters: Goro Miyazaki, Keiko Niwa
Based on a book series by: Ursula K. Le Guin
Producer: Toshio Suzuki
Producers (U.S. version): Steve Alpert, Javier Ponton
Executive producer (U.S. version): John Lasseter
Director of animation: Akihiko Yamashita
Surpervising animator: Takeshi Inamura
Art director: Yoji Takeshige
Music: Tamiya Terashima
Editor: Takeshi Seyama
Rated PG-13, 115 minutes