This movie is a punch to the solar plexus: With sources as rich as Ursula K. Le Guin and Studio Ghibli, Tales from Earthsea (loosely drawn from Le Guin's Earthsea series) has no right to disappoint. But it does. Our protagonist, a fantasy prop named Prince Arren, stabs the king in the first few minutes and then fails to do anything interesting ever again. He gets kicked around in a crumbling brick city, mopes when the archmage Sparrowhawk rescues him from wolves, and languishes in bed on Tenar's farm, where nobody is allowed to act like a real person—not even guests. The action sort of picks up when the villain sends his henchmen to trample Tenar's garden. Tenar is kidnapped, blah blah; the men go to the castle to rescue her, blah blah. Arren whines until the servant girl gives him a sword and then TESTICLES POP OUT OF HIS CHEST. Also, dragons exist. But we barely see them.
Director Goro Miyazaki's characters have promise, but they are ultimately as flat as the paper they're drawn on. And plenty of interesting ideas never develop beyond their apparition. What happened to the magic plague? What's going on back in the royal court? Why does Arren sometimes get possessed by a shadow with a better personality? Perhaps I'm being harsh, but Goro lacks the storytelling instinct of the elder Miyazaki. I just don't see how we started with dragons and ended up with FarmVille.
Individual moments, though, shocked me into clarity. There's a nightmare scene full of burbling toxic goop, and the final eerie view of the villain looks like Munch's The Scream deteriorating into radar frequency. But Earthsea has the hiccups, and it thrashes against its own structure instead of focusing on the one thing we all actually care about: CHROME DRAGON FIGHTS.