Expectations are doubtless high for this - the first Studio Ghibli release since 2005's Howl's Moving Castle; it is also the debuting directorial effort of Hayao Miyazaki's son, Goro - a decision which is known to have been the source of much tension between the pair during the film's production.
Tales from Earthsea concerns the plight of Prince Arren - a boy equipped with both shy humility and apoplectic rage as violent as it is ephemeral. Fleeing the palace after a brutal murder, the seemingly cursed Prince finds unlikely companionship in the wizard Sparrowhawk, whom he accompanies on his travels to discover the source of that which is unbalancing the world; disease, poverty and enslavement are proliferating at the hands of an esoteric force, which Sparrowhead will discover emanates from the pernicious machinations of one Lord Cob, who seeks immortality. The two male protagonists come to encounter and reacquaint themselves respectively with female companions, Therru and Tenar, who assist them in their ultimate battle against Lord Cob and his minions.
The film falls very much into the "epic" category of Ghibli's dichotomic catalogue, and allegedly forces the contents of at least three Earthsea books (which, regrettably, I have yet to read) into its duration - a decision which, I feel, results in disjointed pacing: the anti-climatic final battle yawns over a vast chasm of slight tedium, while the more intriguing opening scenes involving the King are danced over with quite unnecessary flourish. Unlike most Ghibli films, there is no fixed setting - the protagonists wander from one settlement to the next, lending a Tolkien-esque quality to proceedings, and allowing for some stunning and varied backdrops; but while the scenery is a sublime as ever, the animation, I feel, suffers from slight inconsistencies - especially noticeable in the final battle scenes (the climatic collapse of the Lord Cob's tower pales in comparison to the collapse of Howl's castle, for example).
Characterisation is the weakest aspect of this film; there are arguably three main characters, each as intriguing but ultimately undeveloped as each other. We learn little of the abused and scarred Therru, the insinuated erstwhile relationship between Sparrowhawk and Tenar is never fully revealed, and the demons that haunt Prince Arren are only explained to superficial levels. Goro Miyazaki has attempted admirably to infuse his film with a miasma of history and magical mysticism, but perhaps he should have derived less content from the books, or expanded one film to more, in preference of revealing more of the world and its inhabitants. Aspects such as the dragons, the concept of True Names, and the Land of the Dead are all referenced with frustrating brevity, while the admittedly interesting pontifications on life and death outstay their welcome; it is such inconsistent focus that mars the film as a whole.
The first half of this film is glorious: the music with its epic recurring theme in varied guises, the scenery, and the potential of the characters render it a pleasure to behold; however, the second half let me down by not fulfilling the promises established in the initial scenes, and what could have been a captivating and magical dive into the ocean of a highly-regarded literary creation feels like nothing more than a pleasurable but short-lived paddle. But it's still Ghibli, so you should still watch it and will still enjoy it.