Wizards are fighting, dragons are circling overhead and the natural world has lost its balance in "Tales From Earthsea" (Walt Disney/Studio Ghibli), a Japanese anime adaptation of the popular book series by Ursula K. Le Guin. "Tales From Earthsea" offers multiple parables on life and death; freedom and slavery, and the need to respect the environment.
There's a lot going on here, and viewers unfamiliar with the novels and their complex mythology may feel bewildered. But—as centered on the figure of Sparrowhawk (voice of Timothy Dalton), a master wizard—this is essentially an epic struggle between good and evil with a healthy dose of Christian symbolism thrown in.
Along with the other symptoms of a disturbances in Earthsea's life force—sailors no longer able to control the wind and waves, failed crops, rampant pestilence, increasing drug use and the onslaught of those dragons—the king's son, Prince Arren (voice of Matt Levin), has disappeared. After committing murder, this boy-wizard goes on walkabout, eventually joining Sparrowhawk as his apprentice.
Sparrowhawk must protect Arren so that he can control his powers, fulfill his destiny and restore harmony to nature. But Arren is a rebellious teen and runs away. He saves a young girl, Therru (voice of Blaire Restaneo), from slavery, freeing her to return to the farm where she lives with her adopted mother, Tenar (voice of Mariska Hargitay), a former priestess who, it turns out, is Sparrowhawk's great love.
Interrupting the temporary domestic bliss that follows for our coincidental quartet is evil wizard Lord Cob (voice of Willem Dafoe). Terrified by death, Cob wants to live forever. But to achieve this, he must kill all of Earthsea's good wizards.
Catholic viewers will note many quasi-Christian references sprinkled throughout the film. Sparrowhawk carries a staff, and roams the countryside looking for lost lambs, to bring them into "the light." Tenar recalls the moment when "he came and rescued me and led me into the light."
When Arren is seized by slave traders and thrown in jail, Sparrowhawk miraculously appears, removes Arren's chains and liberates him, St. Peter-like, while the guards sleep.
The central message of "Tales From Earthsea" is about life, "the most important thing in the world."
Viewers hooked on the wondrous Disney/Pixar style will be sorely disappointed by the animation on display in this 2D production. While backgrounds are lush, often resembling beautiful oil paintings, the character renderings are not more advanced than your typical Saturday morning cartoon fare.
Additionally, as directed by Goro Miyazaki (son of famed Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki), the subject matter of "Tales From Earthsea" is darker, more violent and a lot less fun than most Disney offerings, making this the first-ever animated film produced or distributed by the company to receive a PG-13 rating.
The film contains stylized cartoon violence, including stabbings and strangulations, instances of drug use, and fantasy witchcraft. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II—adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
Joseph McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.
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