The crew of a war galley are up against a storm. Suddenly two dragons are fighting above the clouds, during which one is killed by the other (an occurrence believed impossible).
News of the kingdom declining and nothing heard from Prince Arren troubles the King of Elad. The Wizard Root speaks of dragons and men being "one", divided by their particular desires (freedom and possessions respectively), which is the cause of the world's "Balance" weakening. Suddenly the King is fatally stabbed in a dark corridor by a young boy who is revealed to be his own son Arren. The young prince steals his father's sword and flees the palace while his father dies from the wound inflicted on him.
In the desert, Arren is rescued from dire wolves by the Archmage Sparrowhawk. Together they travel to the city of Hort Town, full of swindlers, slavers and Hazia drug merchants. When Arren explores the town alone, he rescues a young girl named Therru from slavers, but is captured by the slave master Hare and his sword is discarded in the sea. Sparrowhawk rescues Arren from the slave caravan and takes him to a farm run by Sparrowhawk's friend Tenar, who lives with Therru.
Sparrowhawk's intervention against Hare's slave caravan angers Lord Cob, a powerful wizard and the ruler of Hort Town, who wants the archmage brought to the castle. Meanwhile, Sparrowhawk tells Arren that he seeks a way to restore the upset Balance, then resumes his search in Hort Town. While there he buys Arren's sword from a merchant's stall and manages to evade capture from Hare, learning about Cob's castle from the slave master.
Arren confesses to Therru that he killed his father and that feels an unknown presence following him. Because of this, Arren leaves the farm, but is met by the presence, which is a mirror image of himself. Arren falls unconscious after stumbling into a swamp while fleeing from the image. Cob takes him to the castle, where he manipulates him into revealing his "true name", Lebannen, to control him. Meanwhile, Hare captures Tenar as bait to lure Sparrowhawk into the castle leaving Therru tied to a post as a messenger. She frees herself, and encounters Sparrowhawk, who gives her Arren's sword and tells her to stay home and give it to Arren if he returns. Sparrowhawk breaks into the castle to save Tenar and confronts Cob. Sparrowhawk learns that Cob is causing the world's Balance to collapse by opening the door between life and death to try and gain eternal life. Sparrowhawk tries to warn Cob of the dangers of upsetting the Balance, and Cob sends Arren out to kill him. Sparrowhawk frees Arren from Cob's control but is captured by Hare, his power having been weakened within the stronghold of Cob's castle.
Meanwhile, Therru sees the same copy of Arren and follows him to the castle, where he reveals that he is the light within Arren and tells Therru his true name. Therru enters the castle and learns of Sparrowhawk and Tenar's sunrise execution. She finds Arren, guilty and hopeless, and brings hope back to him, calling him by his true name and confides in him her own true name, Tehanu. They rush to rescue Sparrowhawk and Tenar. Arren confronts Cob, who tries to kill him with a "Summoning Spell," but he fights back and finally unsheathes his sword, which was sealed with magic. Arren cuts off Cob's staff-holding hand. Unable to use his magic powers, Cob rapidly begins to age. He captures Therru and flees to the highest tower on the castle, with Arren in pursuit. Cornering Cob, Arren tries to explain what he learned about life and death from Therru and Sparrowhawk to Cob, but Cob refuses to listen and uses the last of his magic to strangle Therru to death. However, she does not die as she has eternal life, and instead becomes a dragon. Therru kills Cob by burning him alive and rescues Arren from the collapsing castle tower.
Sparrowhawk and Tenar leave the castle, and meanwhile Therru and Arren land in a field where Therru changes back into a human. Arren tells Therru he will leave for home to repent for his crime, but will come back to see her some day. After Arren and Therru reunite with Sparrowhawk and Tenar, the four of them pitch in to finish the farm chores and spend time together. Arren and Sparrowhawk depart for Enlad, bidding Therru and Tenar goodbye. Therru looks up to see dragons peacefully flying in the sky, indicating that the world's Balance is returning to normal.Bunta Sugawara (Timothy Dalton in the English Dub) as Ged/Sparrowhawk, a famous wizard of Earthsea, known as the Archmage, who is trying to solve the mystery on why the world's Balance in collapsing. He acts as a wise father-figure to Arren.
Junichi Okada (Matt Levin in the English Dub) as Prince Arren/Lebannen, a 17 year old prince of Enlad, who is followed by a shadow due to his fear of death and the darkness in his heart caused by the collapse of the Balance.
Aoi Teshima (Blaire Restaneo in the English Dub) as Therru/Tehanu, a first-degree burned victim who is the same age as Arren. She was abused and abandoned by her real parents until Tenar took her in at a young age. Therru is very shy and hated Arren at first after he saved her from Hare because she thinks he doesn't care about life.
Jun Fubuki (Mariska Hargitay in the English Dub) as Tenar, Sparrowhawk's old friend. When she and Sparrowhawk were young, she was a priestess at the Tombs of Atuan until Sparrowhawk guided her to freedom. She raises Therru on her own and accepted Arren and Sparrowhawk into her and Therru's home with open arms.
Yūko Tanaka (Willem Dafoe in the English Dub) as Cob, the main antagonist of the film. Years ago, Sparrowhawk defeated him before he could attempt to control the dead and was, therefore, banished to the Wastelands. Eventually, he escaped and destroyed the world's Balance in order to try and to gain eternal life.
Teruyuki Kagawa (Cheech Marin in the English Dub) as Hare, Cob's head slaver. Despite being somewhat bumbling and cowardly, he is very loyal to Cob and takes his slaver job seriously.
Kaoru Kobayashi (Brian George in the English Dub) as the King of Enlad and Arren's father. He cares for his kingdom and its well-being.
Yui Natsukawa (Susanne Blakeslee in the English Dub) as the Queen of Enlad and Arren's mother. She is very strict that she believes Arren is old enough to take care of himself.
Mitsuko Baisho (Kat Cressida in the English Dub) as a Cloak Vendor, a middle-aged woman who sells cloaks. According to her, she herself used to be a sorceress. However, due to the world's Balance collapsing and the people's failing belief in magic, she lost her magic and reduced herself to sell cloaks.
Takashi Naito (Jess Harnell in the English Dub) as the Hazia Dealer who attempted to bribe Arren into eating some Hazia until Sparrowhawk intervened.
This feature film from Studio Ghibli is the first anime film adaptation of any part of the Earthsea series. In the past, many directors, including Hayao Miyazaki, had tried to adapt the Earthsea cycle for film, but were disapproved by the author herself. When Le Guin first heard of Miyazaki's interest in adapting her work, she had not seen any of his films and associated animation with the output of Disney; as such, she turned down his request.
In 2003, after winning an Oscar for his film Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki received Le Guin's approval but was busy directing Howl's Moving Castle. Studio Ghibli head Toshio Suzuki decided that Hayao's son Gorō Miyazaki, who was advising on the film, should be given his first directing job for the adaptation. Hayao was dissatisfied with the decision, thinking that Gorō lacked the necessary experience. They reportedly did not speak to one another during production of the film. However Hayao later acknowledged his son's work upon its first preview." Some feel that a major section of the plot was adapted from the director's father, Hayao Miyazaki's Shuna no Tabi, with many direct references.
The soundtrack for Tales from Earthsea was composed and managed by Tamiya Terashima and was released by Tokuma Japan Communications and Studio Ghibli Records as a multichannel hybrid SACD-CD on 12 July 2006. Carlos Núñez was a key collaborator on the soundtrack, contributing his ocarina, whistle and Galician gaita (bagpipe) to 11 of the 21 tracks. Newcomer singer, Aoi Teshima, sang in 2 of the tracks. A follow-up album, "Melodies from Gedo Senki", was released on 17 January 2007 and included unreleased Gedo Senki OST tracks and new tracks by Núñez.
Studio Ghibli released the first and second trailers on its official web site. A three-minute Japanese trailer was first shown in Japanese cinemas starting Saturday 24 February 2006. It was aired on NTV on 23 February 2006 (the day the trailer was completed.) Theo Le Guin, Ursula K. Le Guin's son, viewed the Japanese trailer and said this of it: "The images are really beautiful. The song too, it's not like something from Hollywood, but felt really like Ghibli." The trailers were made by Keiichi Itagaki, who had been responsible for trailers for all of the other Ghibli films up until then.
The film reached No. 1 at the Japanese Box Office on its opening week with a gross of over 900 million yen, or 7.7 million USD, pushing Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest to second place and became the number one movie in the country for five weeks, until it was pushed out of the top spot when X-Men: The Last Stand was released. The movie went on to be the #4 top-grossing movie for the year in Japan.
Ursula K. Le Guin, the author of the Earthsea series, gave a mixed response to the film in her review on her website. Le Guin commended the visual animation in the film but stated that the plot departed so greatly from her story that she was "watching an entirely different story, confusingly enacted by people with the same names as in my story". She also praised certain depictions of nature in the film, but felt that the production values of the film were not as high as previous works directed by Hayao Miyazaki, and that the film's excitement was focused too much around scenes of violence. Her initial response to Gorō Miyazaki was "[I]t is not my book. It is your movie. It is a good movie". However, she stated that the comment disclosed on the movie's public blog did not portray her true feelings about the film's vast departure from original stories; "taking bits and pieces out of context, and replacing the storylines with an entirely different plot..."
Le Guin's mixed opinion of the film is indicative of the overall reception of the film, particularly in Japan. In Japan, the film found both strong proponents and detractors. Many of the opinions can best be summed up in a response to Le Guin's comments on her website, that the weak points of the film were the result of "when too much responsibility was shouldered by someone not equipped for it".
The critical reception in Japan was positive, but received mixed reviews when comparing it to the other Ghibli movies. Miyazaki was presented Japan's Bunshun Raspberry Award for "Worst Director", with Tales from Earthsea receiving the award for "Worst Movie", at the end of 2006. The film was nominated in 2007 for the Japan Academy Prize for Animation of the Year (losing to The Girl Who Leapt Through Time) and was selected in the Out of Competition section at the 63rd Venice Film Festival.
Rotten Tomatoes' Tomatometer shows a rating of 41%, making it the only "Rotten" film produced by Studio Ghibli.
Tales from Earthsea was released in a limited theatrical release on 13 August 2010, in North America by Walt Disney Pictures. In its American release, the film was rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for some violent images, making it the first and only animated film distributed by Disney to receive a PG-13 rating. It is also the second Studio Ghibli film to receive this rating after Princess Mononoke. The DVD release date was 8 March 2011. GKIDS will re-issue the movie on Blu-ray & DVD under a new deal with Studio Ghibli.
The film was released in selected UK cinemas on 3 August 2007, in both subtitled and English dubbed versions. The film was not released as widely as previous Ghibli movies, playing to 23 venues across the nation and making an unremarkable £23,300. Reviews were generally positive, but received mixed reviews when it was compared to the past Ghibli films. Radio Times suggested that it "lacks the technical sheen and warm sentimentality of some of Ghibli's earlier films", while the Daily Mirror called it "ploddy, excruciatingly slow" and not in the same league as the work of Hayao Miyazaki. However, Empire magazine said it was "well worth watching" while The Guardian called it "An engaging piece of work".
DVD distributor Optimum Releasing released both the subtitled and dub, region 2 DVD for the UK market on 28 January 2008. To mark the release, HMV ran frequent sponsor credits for the DVD, as well as a prize competition, on the AnimeCentral channel. In Australia, Tales from Earthsea premiered in Brisbane on 15 April 2007. The film began a single print tour of major cities on 25 April 2007 and ended up playing at locations in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth over the following months. It was notable that unlike previous Studio Ghibli releases, only a subtitled version was seen in cinemas.
A 2-disc DVD was released on 12 September 2007 by Madman Entertainment, this time featuring both the English and Japanese versions. In Spain, Tales from Earthsea (Cuentos de Terramar) premiered only in Madrid and Barcelona in two small theaters on 28 December 2007, only in a Japanese version with subtitles (an odd theatrical release compared to previous Ghibli movies). A single DVD and a special 2-disc DVD were released on 12 March 2008 by Aurum, this time with a Spanish soundtrack included.