Goro Miyazaki's cartoon opens with a son killing his father, the King. An auspicious start for a debut filmmaker whose father is the global darling Hayao Miyazaki, the imagination behind cross-Pacific hits like Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Ponyo. But Goro isn't trying to slay his dad's living legacy, he's trying to claim a piece of it for his inheritance while testing how much moody philosophy the form can handle. Audiences confusing the son for his pops will willingly tote their kids to a matinee, but might blanch at a cartoon where the hero considers suicide. (It's Disney's first go at PG-13 animation.) Upon its release in Japan, Earthsea was the year's fourth highest grosser and the winner of a Raspberry award for Worst Movie (both are exaggerations for an odd little film that aims only to please itself).
In the land where lifetimes ago men used to be dragons, a parricidal prince named Arren (Matt Levin) hides his identity and roams the desert. Literally stalked by his own anger, he teams up with a wandering wizard named Sparrowhawk (Timothy Dalton) who teaches him about the life beyond the palace. "The balance of the world is off," intones Sparrowhawk. The harvest is poor and men have packed the cities and turned on each other to survive. When the two enter the city of Hortown, it's like animated outtakes from Spartacus: bullies capture humans for slavery and drug pushers lurk in alleys. It's enough to turn a tyke into kiddie Karl Marx. And through it mopes Arren, who when confronted by slave hunters with swords warns them, "Life means nothing to me."
The film poses freedom as the barest essential right, but once people have it their future is up to them. One of the gloomiest images is a wagon of unchained slaves. Sparrowhawk has freed them from their manacles, but they're still in the shadows with lowered heads, unable to take the next step.
And then the movie really gets dark.
Enter the cause (or maybe just the embodiment) of mankind's agony: a wizard named Cob (Willem Dafoe) who looks like Cher and wants to stay that way. His goal is to find the secret to immortality. And so Miyazaki, working from the novels by Ursula K. Le Guin, shifts the focus from capitalism to egoism. At stake is the very balance of life and death, but while Arren and Sparrowhawk and their friends Terru (Blaire Restaneo) and Tenar (Mariska Hargitay) argue about it in broad strokes, Miyazaki's dialogue also fills in the too-human rebuttals: who doesn't want to live forever? What child in the audience can accept that they, too, must grow old and die?
These moody reckonings seem about as natural in the mouths of these cartoons as Lindsay Lohan doing an anti-drug PSA. Still, I respect a film that respects tweens as the smart, sensitive proto-humans they fancy themselves to be. The tone of Earthsea is as dark as The Last Unicorn or The Dark Crystal, though a shade less lyrical. Miyazaki saves his poetry for the wind. Though the animation is largely functional, like his father, he's gifted in showing the motion of nature: the trees, the waves, the fields. Nature, both agree, is epic. And so too is this film in the classic sense of the word, it's a heroic epic that draws its blood from Gilgamesh, the Babylonian saga about a murdering half-god who squanders his youth on a quest for immortality. Too late, he is told that the only way to live forever is to plant new life that will carry your memory. By ending the film with a shot of freshly-sown fields, it's clear Miyazaki agrees.
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Timothy Dalton, Margiska Hargitay and Matt Levin
Director: Goro Miyazaki
Writers: Goro Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa
Producers: Steve Alpert, Javier Ponton and Toshio Suzuki
Rating: PG-13 for some violent images.
Running time: 115 min
Release date: August 13 ltd.