Legend of Earthsea (2004)

Reviewer: Charity Bishop


When the lands of Earthsea are threatened by tyrannical King Tygath (Sebastian Roch), young Ged (Shawn Ashmore) does an astonishing feat of magic to protect his village from invading forces. This unexpected revelation of power brings him great attention, not only from the power-hungry monarch who has been forewarned of a great wizard with the powers to defeat him, but also from Ogion (Danny Glover), an old and wise mage who gives Ged his true name and offers to educate him in the ways of magic. Leaving his family and friends behind to journey with Ogion into the mountains and learn the trade, Ged is dissatisfied with his slow-moving education. He wishes to learn the arts, but Ogion is determined to teach him responsibility before power. When Ged nearly unleashes an ancient evil from the earth, Ogion decides to send him to the island of wizardry, to study with other youths under the tutelage of the finest mages in Earthsea.


Ged rapidly devours knowledge, putting his peers to shame. Among his most outspoken critics is Lord Jasper (Mark Hildreth), an elitist with a private agenda. Their rivalry amuses the students and alarms the staff, rapidly becoming deadly as Jasper provokes Ged to attempt to raise a former mage from the dead. Instead, Ged summons an Unnamed One, a dark and terrible evil from the bowls of the earth, destined to consume those in its path and ultimately possess its master. The guardians of this ancient force are the priestesses of a neighboring island. Their leader, Thar (Isabella Rossellini), is growing old and searches for a successor. King Tygath is hoping it will be his mistress (Jennifer Calvert) but the more likely candidate is Tenar (Kristen Kreuk), who has proven intelligence, insight, and powerful strength. Tenar has seen a vision of a boy wizard, and they believe him to be responsible for the desecration of the temple and the release of evil.


Ged has also seen Tenar in his dreams. Forced to leave the school and spend a life fleeing the thing which hunts him, he returns to Ogion for council. He must defeat the monster he has unleashed and save Earthsea from a terrible fate. Along the way he will encounter powerful forces, find his own magical talents, defeat a dragon, and encounter true love. Very loosely based on the highly popular series of books by Ursula K. Le Guin, Legend of Earthsea is not a bad fantasy. It has engaging characters, subtle humor, and enough mystery to keep you intrigued. Written after Tolkien and before Rowling, you can see influences of both in the storytelling aspect: the boy wizard and a school of magic, and a king desiring to take over the world. Even so, it never feels too familiar. Much of the film is completely from the mind of filmmakers rather than relying on Guin's ingenious storytelling, but even then the miniseries has merit.


For a series considered by many to be on-par with The Lord of the Rings, the computer-generated world is shoddy and unrealistic. It looks fake from a distance, from the little craft bobbing on the sea to the magnificent wizarding palace atop the cliffs. Oddly enough, the creatures and uses of magic are quite the opposite; demons from the underworld are hideous, trees sprout in the middle of luncheon and bear fruit, and school boys laughingly put their hands through solid objects. If there is to be any single complaint with the series, it is that Tenar is not given as much screen time as Ged. Her world is significantly less interesting than his, but her role is no less important. She's under-used in the first installment and given more influence in the second. She's very enigmatic although oddly enough, Mother Thar is the most likable character. There's also the food-obsessed wizard sidekick who provides a nice counterpoint for Ged's seriousness.


Most of the film is decent but there are two highly out of place scenes, both about five minutes into each installment. I was appalled when a woman disrobed and climbs into bed with King Tygath. The camera leers at her bare back and the side of her breast, then discreetly moves away as she crawls on top of her lover after some spicy dialogue. Later the two are seen having sex, with related moaning before she slides off him and lays by his side. Both scenes have no weight in the storyline and are totally inappropriate. Mild innuendo intrudes on occasion. There are only a couple of profanities, and most of the violence refrains from being gruesome. A man is sliced in half (unseen, but blood does spatter onto the wall) in punishment. A woman is stabbed, and another strangled. Gargoyle-like monsters attack human beings. Wizards and soldiers go to battle, throwing fireballs at one another. A sword impales a man and he falls dead down a flight of stairs.


Magic is naturally present in massive force. There is talk of sorcery and the priestesses pray on occasion (to who or what is unknown; a higher power is mentioned but not explained). Ged attempts to raise a woman from the dead and instead brings to life a monster that is destined to seek and ultimately possess him. Two people are brought back to life after death, because their spirit had not yet parted from their body. This creature does possess several people. The schoolchildren perform various magical feats, from shape shifting to transforming rocks into diamonds. They read spell books and often recite spells beneath their breath. None of it is portrayed in a realistic fashion, but is all linked to fantasy. I never found it spiritually oppressive or threatening. Best of all, there are good lessons to be gleaned from the characters. Ged learns that he cannot defeat his evil side but must learn to control and suppress it. He learns the value of patience, honesty, courage, and not running away from your problems, as well as the consequences of his wrong choices and actions.


If it weren't for the two scenes of sexual content, I would recommend this to all fantasy fans. It is still very worthwhile but sadly tainted by irresponsible writers who apparently felt Guin wasn't engaging enough on her own, so they had to completely rewrite her work. If you go in searching for a true-to-the-books adaptation, you will be disappointed, but if you go in simply for the pleasure of discovering a new fantasy universe full of mages, magic, and evils to be defeated, you'll find yourself enthralled with Earthsea.