TALES FROM EARTHSEA – Blu-ray review

Ursula K. Le Guin fans won’t recognize her Earthsea series in this 2006 Studio Ghibli animated adaptation—at least that’s what Le Guin thinks. And Hayao Miyazaki was of the opinion that his son, Goro,was too young to direct the film, even though Studio Ghibli head Toshio Suzuki had handed him the job.

But I’m thinking even the elder Miyazaki might not have been able to patch together a completely logical screenplay based on the first four Earthsea books in a film that spans just 115 minutes.

Without any knowledge of the politics behind this film’s creation and release, viewers might conclude as I did:  that the backgrounds and non-figurative details are wonderfully rendered, and that the exquisite hand-drawn artwork is what holds your interest as this somewhat pedestrian fantasy plays itself out.

“Tales from Earthsea” has a medieval-Western flavor. There’s some confused narrative about dragons, and people going insane, and a wizard named Sparrowhawk who reminds you more of Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, and a prince named Arren who killed his father . . . and we’re supposed to be sympathetic to him as the film’s protagonist.

Then there are slavers and a girl named Therru, whom Arren saves, but Therru seems to have one giant attitude problem, whether it’s directed at men or life in general. In this small, fantastical world, Sparrowhawk just happens to know the woman who cares for Therru, and the villain just happens to look like a cross between a young Emperor in “Star Wars” and a female impersonator. There’s more about Arren appearing as a spirit copy of himself and the slavers and their boss trying to eliminate Arren, who has a sword that we think is magical . . . if we could only see him able to unsheath it!

In other words, “Tales from Earthsea” is a more complex, condensed, and re-envisioned patchwork of the Le Guin tales, which makes it even more oblique than the average fantasy tale involving dungeons and dragons and wizard-like guide figures, and, of course, a boy whom we’re supposed to believe is somehow the key to “balance” or something.

But “Tales from Earthsea” unfolds in spectacularly slow fashion. You’d think that with such leisurely pacing that the younger Miyazaki would have been able to make everything just a little clearer, but that’s not the case. So what we’re left with are those magically rendered backgrounds and scenic constructions, into which our hapless and mostly expressionless characters move and interact.

“Tales from Earthsea” has a runtime of 115 minutes and features, on the dubbed version, the voice talents of Timothy Dalton, Cheech Marin, Willem Dafoe, and Mariska Hargitay. It’s rated PG-13 for “some violent images.”

The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer is a good one. I found myself mesmerized by the water, the stone, the contrasting textures of the natural and manmade elements in this fantasy world. There were plenty of times when I just said, aloud, “Wow.” “Tales from Earthsea” is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and the colors are wonderfully hued.

The default audio is the English DTS-HDMA 5.1 dubbed version, but fans will be grateful that they can also watch in Japanese DTS-HDMA 5.1 with English subtitles. French is also an option for both sound and subtitles.

I wouldn’t say that the soundtrack is immersive, but it does come to life when violence strikes, and the rear speakers snap to attention.

This is a combo pack, so a DVD is also included. Disc features provided are better than the other Studio Ghibli bonus features from this new wave of titles, but still not much. We get the original Japanese storyboards, TV spots and trailers, and two brief features:  “The Birth Story of the Film Soundtrack” and “Behind the Studio: Origins of Earthsea.” It’s the latter that will be of most interest to fans.

Bottom line:
I’d watch “Tales from Earthsea” again for the wonderful hand-drawn artwork, backgrounds, and animation, but not for the hackneyed narrative that left me with a “been there, done that” feeling and reportedly disappointed Le Guin as well.