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Tales from Earthsea

A prince sets out on a magical journey and discovers wizards, witches, dragons and self-knowledge in "Tales From Earthsea," a first feature for Goro Miyazaki, son of the celebrated Hayao Miyazaki ("Spirited Away"). Combined cult reputations of the Miyazaki name, production house Studio Ghibli, and Ursula K. Le Guin, whose "Earthsea" fantasy novels provide script basis here, has generated boffo B.O. domestically where pic has earned $52 million after five weeks.

With:
Voices Junichi Okada, Aoi Teshima, Yuko Tanaka, Teruyuki Kagawa, Jun Fubuki, Bunta Sugawara.

A prince sets out on a magical journey and discovers wizards, witches, dragons and self-knowledge in “Tales From Earthsea,” a first feature for Goro Miyazaki, son of the celebrated Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away”). Combined cult reputations of the Miyazaki name, production house Studio Ghibli, and Ursula K. Le Guin, whose “Earthsea” fantasy novels provide script basis here, has generated boffo B.O. domestically where pic has earned $52 million after five weeks. Solid niche earnings await offshore, although this dull and humorless production won’t reap the same critical support as the work of Miyazaki Senior.

In a parallel, quasi-medieval world called Earthsea, teenage Prince Arren (voiced by Junichi Okada) of the kingdom of Enlad is compelled by forces he doesn’t understand to kill his own father and steal the royal sword which has mystical powers.

He runs away and starts trekking the countryside where he meets Sparrowhawk (Bunta Sugawara), the most powerful wizard in the land, who is on a quest to find out why the Balance in the world is out of whack, producing unexpected appearances of dragons where they shouldn’t be and widespread pestilence.

When the twosome hits the bustling burg of Hort Town (whose sunset-streaked port looks like something out of a Poussin painting), they run into henchmen in the employ of evil wizard Cob (Yuko Tanaka), a supposedly male figure who nevertheless looks like a drag queen channeling early Cher. Cob is the source of Earthsea’s trouble, but needs to capture Arren in order to complete his nefarious goal of achieving eternal youth.

Additional characters include a motherly one-time witch, Tenar (Jun Fubuki), and her orphan ward Therru (Aoi Teshima), who has special powers of her own.

Story was mostly adapted from the third book in Le Guin’s series, “The Farthest Shore,” and feels like the middle section of an epic, although buckets of explicatory dialogue are deployed, especially in first reels, to get aud up to speed. Like much work in the fantasy genre, characters must spout a lot of mystical-sounding guff with great solemnity, and there’s not a single comic-relief character to lighten the mood.

Unfortunately, despite all the spell-casting, pic is also rather deficient visually in the magic department. The character design is especially flat and undistinguished with inexpressive faces and is, in terms of coloring, severely mismatched with the impressionistically daubed backgrounds. Missing is the ludic inventiveness and whimsicality of Hayao Miyazaki at his best.

Still, pic’s general simplicity, fairy-tale quality and G-rated sensibility should help it find a family audience if it’s redubbed for export.

Key tech credits include names who have worked on many previous Studio Ghibli releases, but who seem to have been under-inspired by their tyro helmer here.

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Tales from Earthsea

Japan

Production: A Studio Ghibli production. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Toshio Suzuki. Directed by Goro Miyazaki. Screenplay, Miyazaki, Keiko Niew, based on a novel series by Ursula K. Le Guin, inspired by "Shuna's Journey" by Hayao Miyazaki. (Color); music, Tamiya Terashima; art director, Yoji Takeshige; directing animators, Akihiko Yamashita, Akihiko Yamashita; supervising animator, Takeshi Inamura; color designer, Michiyo Yasuda.

Crew: Director of digital animation, Misunori Kataama; director of digital imaging, Atsushi Okui; sound (Dolby Digital Surround EX, DTS), Tsukuru Takagi; sound mix supervisor, Shuji Inoue; audio director Kazuhiro Wakabayashi. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (non-competing), Sept. 2, 2006. Running time: 115 MIN.

Cast: Voices Junichi Okada, Aoi Teshima, Yuko Tanaka, Teruyuki Kagawa, Jun Fubuki, Bunta Sugawara.

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