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Sci Fi's 'Earthsea': Once Or Twice Upon a Time . . .

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 13, 2004; Page C01

"Legend of Earthsea," a special-effective new miniseries from the Sci Fi Channel, will remind you of lots of other mythic classics, but at least they're good ones: "The Lord of the Rings," "Star Wars," "Harry Potter" and, oh yeah, the New Testament.

But in fact "Earthsea" is based on a series of books written beginning in the late '60s by Ursula K. Le Guin. Nevertheless, some of the similarities are gigantically conspicuous. Anyone who's seen or read any of the "Rings" trilogy, for instance, will find it awfully familiar that in this film, the narrator tells us, "a powerful amulet" exists which one day was broken apart, letting evil loose in the world. However, "an ancient prophecy told of a wizard who would put the amulet back together" and restore order and happiness. Hooray!

Isabella Rossellini as Venerable Mother in the Sci Fi Channel miniseries "Legend of Earthsea." (Alan Markfield -- Sci Fi Channel Via AP)

The folks in the visual effects department have whipped up a super-scenic mystical kingdom populated by peaceful peasants threatened by a power-mad ruler. He's heard about this wizard being born, so he sets out to destroy him. That's the most obvious New Testament influence.

In the two-part film, airing tonight and tomorrow at 9 on Sci Fi, Shawn Ashmore plays the hero, who starts out humbly mumbling in his father's pot shop. Fat Daddy is a blacksmith (who confusingly speaks in a thick Scottish accent), and among his specialties is hammering out steel cookware for the village. You might say he opens the first Pottery Barn.

Meanwhile, the evil king's evil soldiers approach the village with the aim of squashing it out of existence. Why this village? Oh, it's just convenient. It's at this pivotal moment that Ashmore discovers he has wizardly powers; he summons a large puff of smoke to confuse the soldiers and save the village.

Unfortunately, when the soldiers tumble off a cliff into the "sea" part of Earthsea, our hero goes with 'em. But hold on: Wizards never die if there's a spell around to save them and someone to weave it. That someone is Danny Glover as the Obi-Wan Kenobi figure of the story, a peripatetic old geezer who changes the hero's name to Sparrowhawk and instructs him in the ways of wizardry.

Glover -- who literally speaks softly and carries a big stick -- doesn't exactly liven up the movie, which is hardly rousing as it is. Even Sparrowhawk gets itchy. "If you stay with me, you'll need patience," Glover warns -- perhaps to viewers as much as to his young student. Fortunately, Sparrowhawk soon finds himself on a boat, making a new friend who, unfortunately, turns out to be a hideous monster. You just can't tell about people.

It turns out that Glover is forgotten but not gone. He pops up when needed for a crisis. He also dispenses wise sayings to Sparrowhawk, which makes him a Yoda as well as an Obi-wan. "You must seek what seeks you," he warns when the novice wizard unwittingly summons up a ghastly fiend bent on "devouring" his "soul."

Sparrowhawk attends a school of magic like the one attended by Harry Potter. There's an evil young wizard in the bunch, and he's so openly rotten, you'd think everyone would be wise to him. But even the headmaster is in the dark -- until the bad boy joins up with the evil ruler and the headmaster gets an evil knife in the gut. Oh, things looks dark for the people of Seawater. Er, Sea World. I mean Waterworld. Or is it Middle Earthsea?

Whatever. These fanciful fables have become so numerous that the components are sort of mix-and-match. But for those who like them, "Earthsea" should prove reasonably satisfying. Ashmore makes a likable and modest hero, and the cast includes the beautiful Isabella Rossellini, daughter -- of course -- of Ingrid Bergman.

Rossellini plays Venerable Mother, head of a kind of secular nunnery, and once or twice a shot of her in her wimple brings back the image of Bergman as a nun in "The Bells of St. Mary's." The fact that Venerable Mother is slowly being poisoned to death echoes what poor Ingrid went through in Alfred Hitchcock's classic "Notorious."

These are probably not conscious homages to those films, but mere coincidences. Perhaps "Earthsea" should be thought of as a hodgepodgy tribute to the genre it represents -- a little bit of this, a little bit of that and whole lot of work by the boys in the special effects department. The film does have its thrills, enchantments and a splashy sense of spectacle.

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