Not to be confused with the book Tales from Earthsea (2001). The film was directed by Miyazaki Gorō, the son of Hayao, in an unfortunate nepotist twist to which the elder Miyazaki, supposedly, barely agreed. Le Guin herself did not expect it when she agreed, at long last, to have her work adapted by the Japanese studio. The result is not much better than The Cat Returns (2002), making it Ghibli’s second worst feature.
Even so, the film is a beautiful and well paced pastoral. I particularly enjoyed Cob’s “future proof” fortress—despite its videogame-like qualities—and the replanting of the seed beds, both of which are original to the film. It’s enjoyable to see the awesome talents of Ghibli applied to a relatively conventional genre-bound script for a change. The feel of the novels is absent—not enough sea!—and the moral message is both heavy-handed and absurd, amounting to no more than a blustering defence of an intuitive non sequitur, where Le Guin was much more careful.
The script is based primarily on The Farthest Shore, which is the source of the characters Arren, Hare and Cob, the ex-sorceress selling bolts of cloth, and the motif of dragons fighting amongst themselves. The most obvious single departure in the script is that almost all the characters are light-skinned: A racist choice. That’s a huge missed opportunity to make a predominantly and visibly dark-skinned fantasy epic.
The second most obvious departure from the book is the patricide committed by Arren, which I assume is intended to recall Tenar’s order to have three political prisoners killed in The Tombs of Atuan (1971), rather than Arren’s dark thoughts about Ged under Cob’s influence in The Farthest Shore or, for that matter, the younger Miyzaki replacing his father. It is a poor choice.
Cob and Arren are both weak shades of the Nausicaä manga’s imperial brothers. The other characters are uninteresting, including Hare as a sort of Kurotowa character cast as a toady inexplicably collecting slaves in a city almost crossed by very tall aqueducts. The novel’s Hare is not such a toady, slaves there are collected by robbers, and there is no mention of aqueducts.
There are more complicated intertextual relationships. Compare Chihiro recalling her true name in Spirited Away (2001) to Tenar recalling her true name in The Tombs of Atuan. There’s a taint of furry/scaly wish fulfillment in Tales from Earthsea, perverted in its taking from Spirited Away. Many other deviations mix up the Earthsea books and prior Miyazaki productions like The Journey of Shuna (1983) in similarly unwise ways, such as Arren having his own gebbeth without magic while Ged still bears the scars which, in the book, he got from a gebbeth that required great magic to appear. Alas, it is impossible to say whether it is better to start with the books or the film: The film relies on some familiarity with the books, yet willfully corrupts their contents, which is a poor combination.
The film’s internal inconsistencies are no worse than Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989). Certainly I wish the script and director had been more faithful and more competent, but the overall product is decidedly enjoyable as a well-animated, mostly thoughtful fantasy epic.