Dir: Goro Miyazaki. Jap. 2006. 114mins.

Hayao Miyazaki has passed the director'smantle on to his son Goro for Tales From Earthsea,Studio Ghibli's latest feature-length 2D anime. Basedon the series of books by fantasy author Ursula Le Guin,this dragon and wizard yarn is drawn - at least as far as the backdrops go -with the same painterly hand associated with Ghibli,but it lacks the sheer visual magic and kooky humour of Spirited Away or Howl'sMoving Castle. Earthseais cinematic in its level of detail but not in the sketchy development of itscharacters and story, which seem more suited to small-screen anime.

But this will not necessarilyscare audiences off. Released in its native Japan in July, it has already taken almost $60mafter seven weeks, much less than either Spirited Away or Howl's. Beyond Japan, SpiritedAway and Howl's were too out-therefor smaller kids and too fairytale based for most teens, instead making a lotof their business from the adult crossover market. Earthsea, though it has someviolent scenes, will play comparatively well from age seven up, and its period fantasysetting may well help it to catch a ride on the skirts of two other recent literaryfantasy adaptations, Lord Of The Rings and TheLion, The Witch And The Wardrobe.

However, although Disney hasa US distribution deal with Ghibli, Statesideaudiences won't be able to see Earthsea until 2009, when the copyright on the Sci-FiChannel's EarthseaTV series (the subject of much criticism by Le Guin)runs out.

Goro Miyazaki and co-writer Keiko Niwabased their screenplay mostly on TheFarthest Shore, the third book of Le Guin's ongoingseries. A queasily atmospheric opening sea tempest scene states the premise.This distant land, with its medieval architecture and technology, is a worldout of joint: cattle plague roams the countryside (and has started to crossover, BSE-like, to humans) and two dragons - who normally keep to their regularhaunts in the west - appear in these eastern skies, tearing each other apart.Which is not like Earthsea dragons at all, we learn,in one of the plodding expositions of background and message that pepper thedialogue.

In the royal palace, all isnot well either: Prince Arren (Junichi Okada), a mop-haired anime scamp, kills his father, the king, and flees. Wandering in thebadlands, Arren bumps into Sparrowhawk(Bunta Sugawara), a wise and paternal magician who ison a quest to restore the Balance that has been lost in the world. This searchwill take Arren and Sparrowhawkto a farm run by lady farmer and former priestess Tenar(Jun Fubuki), an old friend of the magician. From therethey embark on a second-act rural idyll together with the fourth member of thiseco-friendly manage, Therru (AoiTeshima), a fire- scarred young girl who Arren earlier saved from a bunch of evil slave- traders.

There's little characterdevelopment, particularly in the case of Arren, whosecute-kid manner and fierce sense of loyalty are difficult to reconcile with thebloody patricide he commits at the beginning; when an explanation of hisbehaviour is finally given, it's supernatural and abstract.

The spirit of Le Guin's books is also betrayed not just by the fact that allthe characters look pretty Caucasian (in the books, they were Native Americanin hue and physiognomy), but also by the portrayal of Lord Cob - Earthsea's Sauron-like badwizard, portrayed in the film as an absurd androgynous Goth - whose role as Sparrowhawk's alter ego is glossed over in the film, makingboth characters thinner and less resonant.

The settings are morerewarding than the characters themselves, especially the bustling port of Hort Town, which feels like a decadent corner of Byzantiumafter the Romans packed up and left, with makeshift hovels clustering at thebase of massive ruined arches and a Smyrna-like bazaar full of scam merchantsand drug dealers.

The soundtrack features twosentimental themes songs performed by rising Japanese pop talent Aoi Teshima, who also voices Therru.

Production company
Studio Ghibli

International sales
Wild Bunch

Toshio Suzuki

Goro Miyazaki
Niwa Keiko
from the Earthseabooks by Ursula Le Guin

Production design
Yoji Takeshige

Directing animator
Akihiko Yamashita

Supervising animator
Takeshi Inamura

Colour design
Michiyo Yasuda

Tamiya Terashima

Main cast (voices)

Junichi Okada
Aoi Teshima
Yuko Tanaka
Teruyuki Kagawa
Jun Fubuki
Bunta Sugawara