The idea of a Studio Ghibli adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea books predates the existence of Studio Ghibli itself, as well of three of the (so far) six novels in the series. In the early 1980s, long before he'd gained any fame whatsoever in the West, the relatively green anime director Miyazaki Hayao approached Le Guin about producing an animated version of her then-trilogy, which the author promptly refused. Still hoping to make a grand fantasy, Miyazaki ended up writing and directing Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, so at least the story has a happy ending. For 22 years.

Following the unprecedented success of Spirited Away in America and England in 2002, Le Guin recanted, but by that time Miyazaki had already launched into pre-production of Howl's Moving Castle, and was unable to commit any time to the Earthsea project. What follows is not altogether clear - what Le Guin has reported is not the same as the official Ghibli line - but in the end, Suzuki Toshio, the most senior executive at the studio, tagged Miyazaki Goro, Hayao's son, who had to that point directed a grand total of absolutely nothing. He wasn't even an animator; his training was in forestry science, and he'd worked in urban landscaping before Suzuki hired him to curate the Ghibli Museum in 2001. It was in this capacity that he pitched in to help with preliminary storyboards for the Earthsea film, whereupon Suzuki promoted him - without first consulting Miyazaki père, who believed (with reason) that his son wasn't ready to helm a feature. This led to a rift between the Miyazakis that lasted until the film's premiere.

Meanwhile, Le Guin felt a real twinge of betrayal that Hayao, whose work she'd respected enough to entrust him with her baby, had apparently dumped the project of on Goro, who she didn't know from Adam.

All this drama! and all over something as frankly shabby as Tales from Earthsea, which finally saw the light of day in 2006, and made a decent enough splash at the Japanese box office, despite the fact that nobody in Japan really liked it very much - it ultimately won that country's equivalent of the Razzie for Worst Picture and Worst Director. Which is much too harsh a response to a film that really does quite a few excellent things, visually, though I have not the slightest hesitation in declaring Tales from Earthsea to be the worst project ever put out by Ghibli: one might charitably call the narrative a "mess", and a bit more honestly, a "fucking wreck".

Broadly, the plot of the film follows the general concept behind The Farthest Shore, the third Earthsea book, with hefty lifts from Tehanu, the fourth, and a few key points from A Wizard of Earthsea, the first (and best). By all means, it treats Le Guin's source material with a great deal more respect than the massively awful Sci-Fi Channel miniseries Earthsea, which aired right around the time that the animated film was in pre-production, and this is part of the problem: in their eagerness to keep adding plot elements from all across the novels, the filmmakers perhaps did not spend enough time making sure that all of those elements worked in harmony.

The result - especially in its first hour - is a movie that plays mostly as a spot-the-reference game for enthusiasts of the source material, without carving out a reason for itself to exist, nor really paying appropriate tribute to the themes of the source. It is a sometimes clumsy and hectic sword 'n sorcery adventure, not a bad one, but nor a particularly memorable one.

Anyway, the plot: in the land of Earthsea, magic is out of balance. This leads the magic-users of the world to forget their craft, and the dragons to fight and kill one another, and these omens in turn lead to bad crops, dead livestock, and a general waning of humanity. The King of Enlad (Kobayashi Kaoru) is troubled by these tidings, and troubled by the disappearance of his son, Prince Arren (Okada Junichi); both of these problems end for the old man at the same time, when his son reappears and murders the king, fleeing into the wild. There, Arren is found the Archmage of all Earthsea, Sparrowhawk (Sugawara Bunta), who recognises something important about the boy, and thus takes him on a journey the massive, sleazy metropolis Hort Town.

They quickly get separated, and Arren ends up on the wrong side of Hare (Kagawa Teruyuki), a slaver trying to capture a young girl named Therru (Teshima Aoi). Eventually, Sparrowhawk bails out Arren's ass, and they hide out at the isolated farm of the mage's old friend Tenar (Fubuki Jun), who as luck would have it, currently has Therru in her keeping. As Sparrowhawk continues his investigations into what is driving the world crazy, and Arren wonders what's going on with the terrifying visions he's having of his own shadow chasing him, the strange witch Kumo (Tanaka Yûko), who has some yet-unknown history with Sparrowhawk, prepares to capture both the prince and the mage in the service of whatever evil it is that she has planned for Earthsea.

We can say this much for the film: it doesn't want for incident. It does, however, want for exposition and a good reason to care about any of these people above and beyond the boilerplate "they alone can save the whole world" conflict of so much fantasy. The particular and constant strength of Studio Ghibli's output has been the creation of wonderfully rich characters, be they little human girls, innocent forest creatures, or warlike raccoon dogs, and in this respect above all others, Tales from Earthsea falls far below the level we've come to expect from that company: neither Arren nor Therru seems to have any real existence outside of an object to be buffeted about by the plot, while Sparrowhawk and Tenar, both of them given much more satisfying personalities, simply don't have enough screentime to make up for the protagonists' shortfall. The compensation for this could be a gloriously epic fantasy narrative, and the film does come a lot closer on that count; but the story is too much of a muddle. Details are thrown out that seem like they should be paid off later, but simply wither and die; while aspects of the story that deserve a great deal more context (Sparrowhawk's relationship with Tenar and Kumo, Therru's personal history) make very little sense without the aid of the books to explain the world's dense mythology, and the elaborate histories of all the characters.

On the other hand, the film at least presents the illusion of great fantasy, thanks to a number of individual moments that are tremendously effective as flights of visual imagination. In fact, I'd go so far as saying that Tales of Earthsea is made up of almost nothing but good moments, perfectly dramatic, horrifying, exciting scenes and images that all work phenomenally well taken just as themselves - it's just that the movie is much less than the sum of its parts.

Miyazaki Goro at least understands how to construct a truly awe-inspiring fantasy setpiece, though, which he proves very early with an exhilarating sequence of dragons fighting:

Or the gorgeous, uncanny nightmares that visit Arren, perhaps the most memorable and effective part of the whole movie.

The film works much in the same way that Howl's Moving Castle works: not so much as a story, but as a wonderful collection of powerful, beautiful concepts and images. Though in truth, Tales from Earthsea is certainly as lush as that movie was; more than anything else, it looks like Princess Mononoke made in a rush and on a budget (it certainly cannot be a coincidence that the film took eight and a half months to animate, half of what the much richer and more detailed Howl's Moving Castle, Spirited Away, or Princess Mononoke took to complete). Which is not to say that the film does not have moments of sublime beauty and creativity.

Even so, beauty is not enough to carry a movie; not when the very same studio was producing films just as beautiful on a semi-regular basis. And while Tales from Earthsea has plenty of moments (a chase between a boy and his otherworldly clone here, a climactic battle on a crumbling tower there) that are quite great, enough so that the film works as high fantasy in the most basic sense, that it presents a good number of moments that all but take your breath away in their scale and magical content, it's much more gratifying when a film can do those things and tell a story that hangs together if you apply even the slightest amount of logic the story, or care to have any real investment in the characters.

So, by no means the worst Japanese movie of 2006 or any year; Tales from Earthsea is gorgeous but slight, plainly the result of a filmmaker who got in over his head and didn't know how to get on top of a much bigger story than he could work with. It is the most sobering reminder yet that Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata Isao are, by themselves, responsible for most of what is truly exemplary from Studio Ghibli; the latest attempts to replicate their work simply don't reach the same levels of humanism, narrative depth, and spectacle. Let us hope for great things from the spanking new The Borrower Arrietty; and take comfort in the knowledge that even at its worst, Studio Ghibli still produces work more gorgeous and ambitious, however clumsily, than most animation studios could even begin to aim for.