Thursday, December 21, 2006

Fantasy by the numbers

It was inevitable after the success of "The Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter" franchises that the studios would try to capitalize on the newly rejuvenated fantasy genre. Fantasy, no longer regulated to geeks and basements, has become a massive cash cow that needs to be milked dry before it is too late.

What was going to be the next literary series to become a box office darling? Disney got a hold of C.S. Lewis’ "The Chronicles of Narnia," presenting a solid, if flawed adaptation of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." It was a box office success, assuring more in the series, and more from the genre.

Now with "Eragon," we have the first of a trilogy written by teenage novelist Christopher Paolini. It is a film that has all the visual splendor of Middle Earth, Hogwarts and Narnia, but little to none of the heart, emotion or soul. This is connect-the-dots filmmaking that occasionally becomes acceptable entertainment when some of the actors involved raise the material from mediocre to adequate.

The plot is straight out of the original "Star Wars." Eragon (Edward Speleers), a young man, who lives with his Uncle is plunged into an adventure when a dragon named Saphira comes into his possession. Suddenly, he’s a dragon-rider, a once great group of warriors that was struck down by one of their own (John Malkovich).

Luckily, there is one recluse dragon-rider left (Jeremy Irons) to train the boy. There’s also a mysterious princess (Sienna Guillory), a wisecracking scoundrel (who isn’t so cracking) and an evil sorcerer (Robert Carlyle, "Trainspotting"). Eragon and Saphira join up with a hidden rebellion and an epic battle between good and bad ensues. All that’s missing is Chewie.

On the level of story, "Star Wars" was hardly original, but it made up for by creating a universe that was. The characters may have been archetypes, but they were acted with vigor. The character dynamics and banter made up for any shortcomings. For the most part, the same can’t be said of Eragon. The world the film inhabits is a watered-down patchwork of other fantasylands.

Speleers is an unexceptional lead and doesn’t have the presence to carry a film. Guillory makes for a bland princess, but that isn’t necessarily her fault as she spends most of the film sick or unconscious. That is until she is revealed to be a master warrior in the final act. One-dimensional is giving too much credit to these characters.

Eragon and Saphira can hear each other’s thoughts, which means our hero’s CG co-star gets the voice of Rachel Weisz ("The Constant Gardner"). Sadly, it is rather flat voiceover work that only sporadically has any real flavor. Malkovich has nothing more than a cameo, setting up for a bigger role in the next film.

It is only Irons and Carlyle that give the film a pulse, however faint it might be. Irons brings wit, intellect and warmth to his mentor role that isn’t there in the writing. Even when the dialogue is hackneyed he manages to make it sound almost profound. Irons is the sort of actor who could make a frat joke sound intelligent. Thankfully, the film didn’t require him to do so.

As for Carlyle, it is clear he’s having fun. As the film’s villain, he isn’t given much to do, but in the scene where he first encounters Eragon, he’s so gloriously over-the-top that it as if you’re temporarily transported to a different, more entertaining film.

Carlyle seemed to understand that this material wasn’t Tolkien and played it loose and campy. Had the rest of the film been more tongue-in-cheek it might have reached the stature of guilty-pleasure. As is, it is a bit too serious for that.

The film does feature fantastic sweeping vistas of mountains and valleys. The dragon looks great, too. But we’ve seen these visuals before and more dynamically in "Lord of the Rings." It is pretty to look at, but un-involving. Without any depth, it is nothing more than eye-candy. This is mindless entertainment, which definitely has its place, just don’t expect to be able remember much of it a week later.

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