Sci-Fi Channel's "Legend of Earthsea" needs no promotional blitz. It airs at 9 tonight and tomorrow, just as everyone in America has decided to embark on a magical mystery tour...
Sci-Fi Channel’s “Legend of Earthsea” needs no promotional blitz. It airs at 9 tonight and tomorrow, just as everyone in America has decided to embark on a magical mystery tour.
After decades of being confined to the faintly damning corridors of cult fiction, fantasy has achieved smash appeal. “The Lord of the Rings” and Harry Potter movies come to mind, as do best-sellers that range from Dan Brown’s indestructibly popular “The Da Vinci Code” (and all its kin) to Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.”
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As with all categories of art, the label “fantasy” is open to quibbling. Some tuck it under the umbrella of science fiction. Others think it a blend of the historical and mythical, like Homer’s “Odyssey” or anything Joseph Campbell bothered to interpret.
Either way, certain elements remain constant; elements embodied in “Earthsea,” which first took shape as a series of novels and short stories by the brilliant Ursula K. Le Guin.
Le Guin’s “Earthsea” fiction began in 1968 with “A Wizard of Earthsea” and culminated in 2001 with “The Other Wind” and “Tales from Earthsea.” One “Earthsea” novel, “The Farthest Shore,” won a National Book Award in 1973.
Her work wielded considerable influence from the start. George Lucas’ “Star Wars” and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are two obvious examples, though almost everyone, including Le Guin, seems to owe a debt to J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.
Boiling down the first couple of “Earthsea” novels into a four-hour miniseries must have been challenging, but the outline is simplicity itself.
Humble blacksmith Ged (Shawn Ashmore) rises to great magician to preserve Earthsea from the dominance of King Tygarth (Sebastian Roché) and the evil spirits he calls forth. En route, Ged gets help from sage wizard Ogion (Danny Glover) and the priestess Tenar (Kristin Kreuk), who holds secrets given her by High Priestess Thar (Isabella Rossellini).
There you have it. A boy, a mentor and a quest, framed by a moral lesson: the responsible use of power. Like many Le Guin books, the story is infused with Taoist philosophy and an insistence on the importance of female yin to male yang.
Coming on the heels of Sci-Fi Channel’s bombastic space cowboy epics, “Earthsea” is a terrific change of approach. Many science-fiction series and movies give lip service to the notion of a quest, reducing it to a justification for multiple battles with special effects.
“Earthsea,” however, really is about the journey. And as produced under the masterful eye of Robert Halmi Sr. (“Merlin,” “Gulliver’s Travels”), that excursion proves picture-perfect, tasteful, intelligent and at times unbearably plodding.
At the outset, events move along swiftly and most satisfactorily.
In small-town Earthsea, a discontented Ged expresses his desire to leave town and amount to something. He has visions, including one that signals the menacing Kargides are about to invade. When they do, he discovers his first aptitude for magic.
Meanwhile, at Kargide Palace, King Tygath is lounging about in bed with the gorgeously corrupt priestess Kossil (Jennifer Calvert), planning to conquer Earthsea through a combination of war and obtaining secrets guarded by High Priestess Thar.
Several performances ring with authority. The nefarious plotters are deliciously wicked. Roché has mastered the fine art of suave, swaggering villainy, and Calvert’s low-throated, gravelly purr suggests she’s possessed by a carnal-minded devil.
Rossellini is superbly subtle. Warmth peeps out from under her grave beauty, making Thar a convincing mix of part-Mother Superior, part-Isis. Her soft accent gives a European realpolitik spin to Thar’s pronouncements on war and intrigue.
Still, the production rests on the slender shoulders of Ashmore, and it’s just too much for him.
Ashmore has a blond, baby-faced blankness that suits the young Ged. When he stumbles into conjuring a mist to fool the Kargides, and later looks like a rube entering the august magician’s academy, he’s quite believable.
But he doesn’t grow much in the part. The blithe spirits and crowd-rousing passion that you expect a nascent Arthurian legend to display aren’t in evidence. It’s an inert performance, though Ashmore certainly gets the pretty-boy heartthrob award.
Kreuk’s Tenar also is disappointing. Until now, it’s been a surprise that Kreuk hasn’t gotten better parts out of her role as Lana in “Smallville.” The apparent answer is that she can’t convert passive loveliness into deeply felt acting. Her priestess is more like a virginal object waiting to be sacrificed than a dynamic helpmate to a future leader.
Glover as master wizard Ogion is not so much overrated as overbilled. Even in magic circles, 15 minutes of face time isn’t enough to have a major impact.
The shortage of compelling screen talent becomes a problem when the plot of “Earthsea” palls through no fault of its own. Long ago, when the books were written, audiences would have been entranced with the long sequences that take us through the magician’s academy and, in Part 2, through Ged’s adventure-packed road to wisdom.
Unfortunately, Harry Potter has tested my endurance for the public-school spectacle of rivalries, pranks and showoff tricks. And a recent abundance of clever takes on Homeric travails, like “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” have made this story line a pop cliché.
Devotees of the “Earthsea” saga may feel differently. Nevertheless, I wish the producers could have found a pair of stars whose ability to cast a spell equaled Le Guin’s.
Kay McFadden: firstname.lastname@example.org