TL;DR – in a land where dragons and magic exists, there is a delicate balance. A balance threatened by a warlock seeking immortality.
Review (warning: spoilers)
When sailors aboard a ship witness two dragons fighting in the sky, it is an omen that the balance is being attacked. When one of the dragons gets killed, misfortune begins to fall across the land of Enlad. Crops fail, livestock die, and a disease starts plaguing the country.
For Prince Arren, he is also being plagued by some unseen shadow. It causes him to be possessed by a violent spirit, leading him to assassinate his father, the king, and stealing his sword.
Arren flees from the castle and ends up crossing a desert where he is chased by wolves. He is saved by the archmage Sparrowhawk, and together they journey to Hort town ruled by Lord Cob, a powerful warlock that has historical animosity towards Sparrowhawk.
In Hort, the prince and archmage briefly part ways. Arren discovers the inhumanity of the town. Slaves are bought and sold; a drug called hazia is peddled to the desperate; and most of the market stalls sell weapons. When he encounters a girl named Therru being chased by a slaver, Arren intervenes and saves her but reveals he does not care whether he lives or dies (guilt riddles him for murdering his father, and he doesn’t see the point in living), which upsets Therru who doesn’t want to be around someone who doesn’t care about life.
Arren later gets ambushed by the same slaver who wanted to capture Therru and ends up chained in a wagon with other slaves. The prince is saved by Sparrowhawk and taken to a small farm outside of town owned by a woman named Tenar, another mage who has worked previously with Sparrowhawk. It also happens that Therru is under Tenar’s care, and it is here that Arren reveals to Therru that he killed his father and stole his sword because of this shadow that pursues and possesses him.
Existentialism comes to the fore as the twist is that the “shadow” is the true Arren. What the prince is afraid of is living a life that will eventually end in death. Arren’s greatest fear is mortality.
And it is this fear that is used against him by Lord Cob who seeks to open the door between life and death and obtain eternal life. Lord Cob convinces Arren that Sparrowhawk has been manipulating him and wants to achieve immortality by using Arren for his own ends.
Lord Cob also kidnaps Tenar and uses her as bait to lure Sparrowhawk to his castle. There Cob unleashes Arren to fight Sparrowhawk, and though the archmage is able to save Arren and disarm him, the archmage is captured.
With the execution of Sparrowhawk and Tenar at hand, it ends up being Therru that saves the day. She manages to reach Arren, give him his father’s magic sword and convinces him that life is worth living because of its mortality. That’s what makes it precious.
The climactic scene sees both Arren and Therru defeat Cob and revealing that Therru is a dragon.
The wonders of Studio Ghibli animation are on full display and every scene is filled with sumptuous detail, and the characters animated with love and care.
The story itself is a bit of a dog’s breakfast. There’s a lot of stuff that gets mashed together that doesn’t quite make sense. For example, both Arren and Therru have ‘real’ names that if known can be used to evoke power or be used against them by a mage. This is never clearly explained but that’s how I interpreted these scenes where Arren reveals his true name to Cob, and the warlock is able to take control of him.
Then there’s the fact that Therru is a dragon and a princess, yet at no point does she reveal her power or royalty when she’s attacked by slavers. It’s kind of illogical and how and why she is with Tenar on a farm is a mystery.
Another mystery is why does Arren kill his father in the first place? Initially, I thought it was because he was possessed by some sort of evil spirit but that’s not the case. Loosely one can infer by film’s end that he killed his father to obtain the magic sword that might somehow grant him access to eternal life because Arren feared death. But I can’t help feel that that is a stretch because at no point does the sword display anything other than being… well… a sword. Sure when Arren finally unsheathes the sword, it displays a magical light but otherwise all it’s used for is slicing and dicing.
And the battle between the two dragons at the beginning… what was the point of that? Are we to infer that Therru is the dragon that got supposedly killed? That she somehow resurrects herself in human form and doesn’t reveal her true self until Cob tries to kill her?
It’s all a bit convoluted and messy. Add to this that the only well-rounded character is archmage Sparrowhawk and the film struggles. Cob is one dimensional with only glimpses of his own fears about death and his desire for immortality. Why he didn’t just open the door between life and death first before trying to kill Sparrowhawk is a real puzzle. He even tells the archmage that he’s found the key to unlock the door but doesn’t obtain immortality straight away. Instead he wants Sparrowhawk dead first. Bizarre move.
Tales from Earthsea was directed by Hayao Miyazaki’s son, Goro Miyazaki. I really feel for him. The expectations of trying to live up to a man who is a master storyteller and created a canon of brilliant and magical Studio Ghibli films would be daunting to say the least. As his first film, Goro probably bit off more than he could chew.
On the flip side, Goro Miyazaki didn’t give up and subsequently directed From Up On Poppy Hill which is a far more effecting and moving story. I highly recommend watching that one over Tales from Earthsea. This film could have been much more than just being visually stunning, but in the end it’s a disjointed affair that loses its magical lustre.
6 out of 10