The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree in this debut anime from Goro “son of Hayao” Miyazaki. Although the old man should probably defer retirement a little before handing over the reins proper. For while there are flashes of Studio Ghibli brilliance in Tales From Earthsea – inspired by The Farthest Shore, the third instalment in Ursula K Le Guin’s fantasy novel series – they’re cocooned within a somewhat pedestrian saga whose resemblance to Spirited Away is tangential at best.
It doesn’t help that some prior knowledge of Le Guin’s mystical cycle is, if not essential, then certainly advisable – at least if the viewer is to make sense of a baffling pre-credits sequence, introducing a host of characters that are never seen again. As far as we can work out, Earthsea’s gone a bit pear-shaped since men and dragons decided to call it a day – a separation of powers which caused, to use the film’s arcane lingo, “a dimming of the light that sustains the balance of the world”. Luckily there’s a young hero called Arran (Matt Levin) who, with the help of his magician mentor Sparrowhawk (Timothy Dalton) and an incandescent sword, can restore order by stopping evil sorcerer Cob (Willem Dafoe) from opening the gate between the lands of the living and the dead. Simple, really – though that doesn’t explain why Arran stabbed his father in the opening minutes, one of numerous plot threads left irksomely dangling.
Rather than attempting to decipher a script that sounds as if it’s been translated from Japanese to English by someone unable to speak either language, it’s easier to reduce everything to archetypes – basically, it’s Luke Skywalker versus Saruman – and revel in the hand-drawn visuals and protean imagination that make Ghibli fare such a refreshing alternative to all the CG around at the moment.
And if Goro’s handling of the material feels a tad unadventurous, it’s still a worthy first attempt that won’t give Dad Miyazaki too much to kvetch about.