And then, when I was in one of the local branch libraries last week, I saw the DVD! Yay! Much rejoicing.
And so, having saved Friday night for Earthsea and pizza, I present a very, very spoilerish discussion in which the phrase "*headdesk*" will be prominently featured. Also, it may not be very organized.
Ok, first of all, I have not read all of the Earthsea stuff (of which there is Rather A Lot). I've attempted to read A Wizard of Earthsea, read The Tombs of Atuan, finally gone back and FINISHED A Wizard of Earthsea, read a short story with a dragon, read about the post-Atuan books (at least one? possibly two? Anyway.....). I think that's it. Oh, and I saw parts of the execrable SciFi Channel attempt at adopting the Earthsea stories, which was a weird combination of Wizard and Atuan, which made everybody WAY more Caucasian than they are supposed to be (and turned the mentor-wizard into a Literal Magical Negro, because it was that sort of adaptation), made the Tombs of Atuan rather more clean and well-lit than you'd think an underground labyrinth full of nameless Cthulian horrors would be, and... yeah.
So, really, I knew that at least the Ghibli Earthsea would achieve a higher standard than that hot mess.
I will say, first of all, that much of the film is stunningly beautiful. There is this fantastic, fantastic sense that the civilization we're seeing has been built-- sometimes literally-- on and in the ruins of previous cities. There's a desert full of magnificent, giant wrecked ships, and cities that are amazing and colorful and full of ruins people are building new houses in or next to, and it's really brilliantly done, and incredibly evocative. The clothing and scenery is terrific.
Dragondaughter and I spend the first half of the film or so saying, "Wow, this is amazing; hopefully, the plot will show up soon...."
Because you started out with a ship, and a weatherworker who for NO apparent reason suddenly couldn't work magic, and then two dragons fighting and one being wounded and falling into the ocean. Ok. And then a royal council (membership in which was apparently determined by how impressive your beard/mustache is...), and a king who is sensibly responding to all manner of crises in his kingdom, and a queen who.... we never see again, so it's hard to say if she's evil (she IS carrying a disconcerted-looking white Persian cat...) or just cranky or hates her son (or stepson?) or had some bad shrimp for dinner. And then the king gets stabbed by his son, who steals the royal sword. Okaaay, then. I kind of wonder if this all made more sense in the book(s).
Right, so. Arren, the prince, who is terrified of some kind of supernatural thing following him, and sort of kind of not afraid of death and/or uncaring about his own life, meets up with/is rescued by Sparrowhawk (who is the "Wizard of Earthsea" and the main character of several of the stories).
They end up in a (spectacularly beautiful) city, where Arren has some run-ins with a group of slavers, once while rescuing a girl named Therru, and once when the slavers come after him. Because instead of going straight back to the inn, like he promised Sparrowhawk, he... falls asleep on a flight of stairs and has an odd dream. Um. Okay, then.
Before that, by the way, Arren gets dragged into an alley by a very suspicious-looking guy, who almost gets him to take drugs with the promise that the berries or pills or whatever he has in his box will take away his suffering. And Arren almost does it, because apparently he's an idiot (no, really; he gets dragged into an alley and backed into a wall and completely believes whatever the guy tells him *headdesk*).
Therru turns out to be staying with Tenar, a woman who is Sparrowhawk's friend/possible love interest, out at a farm in the (also very pretty) countryside. Now, Sparrowhawk is actually on a quest, to find Lord Cob, the villain (CREEPILY portrayed by Willem Dafoe, but drawn in a way that makes him look bizarrely androgynous and with a head that keeps getting pointier...). Pretty sure that Lord Cob's mucking about with the door between life and death is what is making wizards forget their magic, but nobody ever says that.
Therru is actually a great character; she is angry with Arren because when he saved her he basically did it by talking about how he didn't care about life (his OR hers) and was thus happy to leap in quasi-suicidally and defeat the slavers with a sword he can't actually draw. Therru is not impressed by this nonsense.
Gah, I really didn't want to summarize the whole movie. Ok. So. Cob sends the slavers to capture Tenar (who turns out to be the mopey, I am just going to sit here in this dungeon and not even try to get these ropes off of my hands, because I am just a weak woman who will sit here and mope kind of character). And Therru gets tied to a gatepost to keep her there until Sparrowhawk gets back-- and SHE not only tries to pull her hands free until her wrists are bleeding, she finally manages to dislodge the gate, pull herself out from under it, and go running off to meet Sparrowhawk. Yay, Therru!
Arren has an encounter in a swamp with a thing that looks just like him, almost drowns while fleeing from it blindly into the swamp, and then gets found by Cob, who brings him back to a bedroom in the castle.
Cob: I saved you from the swamp.
Cob: Pay no attention to the Evil Pedophile vibes that the studio apparently felt were appropriate in this scene.
Arren: Um. Ok.
Cob: Here, have a not-at-all-suspicious drink.
Cob: I promise it's not poison.
Arren: I see no reason not to believe that you are completely trustworthy when you tell me that. *drinks*
Sparrowhawk runs to the castle, Cob sets the now-brainwashed-and-evil Arren on him, Sparrowhawk more or less fixes Arren, but then has no powers (because... the castle drains powers? Being near Cob drains powers? The chains they put on him drains his powers? WE WILL NEVER KNOW) and gets tossed into the dungeon, where Tenar apparently hasn't moved this entire time. Therru (who is awesome) completely disregards Sparrowhawk's "You stay here and give Arren his sword when he gets back! Off to defeat the evil wizard, ta!" and brings the sword to the castle.
Therru: Where have you BEEN?
ShadowArren: Me? Oh, I'm in the castle. Most of me. Well, the part of me in the castle became overwhelmed by emo and despair and stabbing people and so somehow lost me, that is, the shiny and light and happy and non-emo part of myself and...
ShadowArren: Have you ever seen "Princess Tutu"? Ok, look, never mind, just bring me-- the me in the castle-- the sword.
This is actually a pretty cool idea, that Arren is panicked and fearful and being hunted by, essentially, his own better qualities and heart and so on, so what's wandering around is his darker side, which vacillates between near-homicidal rage and practically suicidal despair. Except that it is never brought up again, and you just have to guess that somehow giving Arren the sword back and Therru saying his TrueName (a very big magical deal in Earthsea) somehow fixed things (I have to say, a visual cue of "yes, he and his other half are now reunited and he's at least mostly sane, yay" would have been really helpful). Also, in terms of explanations, "He got so overwhelmed by Teen Emo that the good side of his personality up and quit" is almost but not quite at the level of the "I'm the lost prince everybody has been looking for!" whiplash at the end of "Howl's Moving Castle." Just saying.
Sparrowhawk, who has still lost his powers, and Tenar, who is still mopey and useless, are about to be thrown off a tower by Cob and his henchmen (there are like five of them in a giant honkin' castle....). Arren can finally draw his sword, in a blaze of light, yay. Cob ends up being hit with his true age, but instead of falling off the tower or anything, he grabs Therru and proceeds to kidnap... her.... up.... a..staircase.... to... a... ..taller... tower.... very....very....slowly..... Seriously. He has shown that he can become this scary amorphous blob that can fly, at least a little bit, and now he's crawling slowly up the stairs and meebling about death while Arren is dashing after him? Really?
Cob: I will now blast the stairs behind me, so that Arren can't follow!
Arren: Hah! Having played "Prince of Persia," I know how to leap across using the conveniently-placed remaining bits of stair!
Once at the top, Cob strangles Therru, and Arren is very upset, and Cob meebles about life and death and so on...
... and then Therru gets up and tells him he's being an idiot.
... and turns into a dragon and sets him on fire.
Which, frankly, was a moment of such surpassing awesome that it made up for A LOT.
And it was also really interesting, in terms of how that moment made you look at the rest of the movie and see how Therru is set up as much more of the heroine than Arren is the hero (ie, not stupid; spunky; action girl). It also explains why her reaction to the slavers is to try to bite them.
Overall, I would love to watch the prettier bits again, and have images of the different urban landscapes, but I don't feel a need to watch the movie, because once the plot showed up and started impinging upon the scenery, there wasn't much "there" there... and what was there, was kind of stupid.
Dragondaughter and I spent the subsequent hour or so trying to figure out ways the story could have been fixed, and then decided we needed some good silly kung fu movies to wash out our brains.