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Originally published Thursday, August 12, 2010 at 3:02 PM

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Movie review

'Tales from Earthsea': Ebbs with narrative unclarity, flows with pleasing visuals

"Tales from Earthsea," the debut anime feature from Goro Miyazaki (son of Hayao Miyazaki), is visually pleasing but narratively unclear.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 2 stars

'Tales from Earthsea,' with the voices of Timothy Dalton, Mariska Hargitay, Matt Levin, Cheech Marin, Willem Dafoe, Blaire Restaneo. Directed by Goro Miyazaki, from a screenplay by Keiko Niwa and Goro Miyazaki, from a concept by Hayao Miyazaki and based on novels by Ursula K. Le Guin. 115 minutes.

Rated PG-13 for violent images. Harvard Exit.

Abstruse and confusing, "Tales from Earthsea's" story grows increasingly blurry the closer it gets to what should be a deeply satisfying conclusion.

That's not to say this 2006 debut anime feature from Goro Miyazaki, son of legendary anime director Hayao Miyazaki ("Spirited Away," "Ponyo"), isn't moving. It is, moderately so. But with a final act loaded with verbal references to back stories and relationships never quite clarified, "Earthsea" can't deliver its intended emotional punch.

Based on several books in a popular fantasy series by Portland author Ursula K. Le Guin (who described the film as "incoherent" on her website), "Earthsea" begins with promising drama. Set in an imagined world that suggests the late Middle Ages, the fable commences during a surge of imbalance between Earth's elements, between magic and the ordinary, life and death.

Dragons fight in the skies and a young prince inexplicably murders his royal father. That prince, Arren (voiced by Matt Levin in the English-dubbed version opening here), flees to rough country and an even rougher city. There, a wizard, Sparrowhawk (Timothy Dalton), helps him deal with emotional fallout from a mysterious trauma.

Enter Sparrowhawk's old flame, Tenar (Mariska Hargitay), an angry girl named Therru (Blaire Restaneo), a cackling slave trader (Cheech Marin) and a weird villain, Cob (Willem Dafoe), and "Earthsea" brings old battles as well as unfulfilled dreams to hard-won conclusions.

The problem is grasping the full meaning of those things. Despite seeing the movie twice, I remain unclear about ties between Tenar and Sparrowhawk (something about rescuing her from "the tombs"), about Cob's beef with the wizard (much babbling about being left in "the dry land"), and about the full explanation behind Arren's many troubles.

On the plus side, "Earthsea" is visually pleasing, with hot colors in urban settings and cooler, pastel washes elsewhere. The younger Miyazaki's first film won't be a classic, but its stronger achievements are worth a look.

Tom Keogh:

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