Eragon (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The creative and financial successes of two franchises - Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings - have changed the way in which fantasy is viewed by movie-goers. Once a genre pigeonholed as fit only for Dungeons & Dragons nerds, fantasy has gone mainstream. So why has 20th Century Fox released this embarrassment - whose quality would be dubious for a direct-to-video release - into theaters? Eragon, based on the inexplicably popular by-the-numbers fantasy novel written by then-teenager Christopher Paolini, is a throwback to the Dungeons & Dragons movie crapfest of 2000. It's hard to imagine anyone having the patience to sit through this movie except perhaps a handful of 11-year old boys seeking vicarious wish fulfillment.

Ever wondered what Star Wars would be like transposed into a fantasy setting? Wonder no longer. Eragon fills the need, albeit without charm or grace. The storyline isn't just derivative of Star Wars (which wasn't original in the first place), it's a virtual copy. Remember the scene in which Luke gazes forlornly at the setting suns of Tatooine? That happens in Eragon (except there's only one sun). One of the most obvious problems with this regurgitation is that this movie's version of Luke, the teenager Eragon, is so bratty that we spend the whole running length wanting to apply corporal punishment. I don't recall having that kind of reaction to Mark Hamill.

The story takes place on a generic fantasy world where everyone has weird names and lives in caves, dingy windowless palaces, or ramshackle huts. One day, while out hunting, 17-year old Eragon (Ed Speleers) comes across an odd looking stone. He pockets it and, after watching the sun set and dreaming of far away places, his stone does something surprising by cracking open to reveal a cute little dragon. In short order, the small pet has become big and dangerous. The king of the realm, Galbatorix (John Malkovich), who exterminated the dragon riders at the beginning of his reign when he swept away the Old Republic, decides it's not a tradition he wants making a comeback, so he assigns his sidekick sorcerer/shade Durza (Robert Carlyle) to handle it. (Notable deviation from Star Wars: Durza does not have heavy breathing.) Luckily for Eragon, the village bum, Brom (Jeremy Irons), is actually an ex-Jedi… er, an ex-Dragon Rider. He teaches Eragon the ways of the Force… er, the Dragon Riders. Then, after Eragon's uncle is murdered by stormtroopers… er, Durza's mauraders, Brom and Eragon go in search of the rebels' secret base. You can pretty much fill in the rest of the blanks.

The one saving grace of having a movie this unfortunate is that the likelihood of a sequel is small, although the ending all-but-promises one. Instead of telling a story, Eragon presents a bunch of "fantasy's greatest hits" (battles, magic use, dragon strikes, etc.) strung together without concern for connecting material or character development. Despite its breakneck pace, which should allow an entire tale to be told, the film ends with a cliffhanger. However, although the character of Eragon may continue to thrive in Paolini's pedestrian novels, it's unlikely the petulant hero will make another screen appearance. Fantasy often exists in a realm defined by clichés, but there's a large difference between mechanically recording these clichés and developing something interesting from them. Eragon (the book) falls into the former category. Eragon (the movie) takes things one step further into the realm of the tedious and predictable.

It apparently took a worldwide search to "discover" Ed Speleers for the title character. Considering the young actor's wooden performance, one has to question the men and women conducting this search. Wasn't Jake Lloyd available? For the most part, I didn't care about Eragon and, on those occasions when I did, it's because I wanted to slap him. Heroic characters should not be annoying. Since Sienna Guillory spends most of the movie sick, in a coma, or otherwise indisposed, it's not fair to judge her performance. (If there's another movie, no doubt her character will turn out to be Eragon's long-lost sister. At least there's no good luck kiss to conveniently forget.) Perhaps as a form of apology for his foaming at the mouth in Dungeons & Dragons, Jeremy Irons stays low-key as Obi-Wan Brom. He achieves the proper level of world weariness mixed with hope for the future. Robert Carlyle does an excellent impersonation of Brad Dourif's Grima Wormtongue from The Lord of the Rings. John Malkovich is in so little of the movie that his role is little more than a glorified cameo. He probably picked up a nice paycheck for a couple days' work.

Technically, the movie offers a few feeble pluses. The little dragon is cute - kind of an overeager puppy with wings. The CGI of her when she's grown is okay, although the choice of Rachel Weisz to provide her voice is a fatal flaw. One can't take a dragon with those sweet tones seriously. The cinematography and set design are effective - this looks like a wild and primitive place. In any other movie, Patrick Doyle's score might be considered intrusive, but it somehow fits perfectly in these surroundings.

Finally, a word about the MPAA classification. Somehow, Eragon scored a PG. Considering the amount of violence and adult content, I'm not sure how the MPAA was persuaded to be so lenient. No fantasy film should be PG (I offered the same argument about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). It is impossible to dramatize a war effectively without showing enough grit to elevate the rating to a PG-13. As with Narnia, the neutering of the violence gives the movie's "epic" battle scenes an incomplete, cartoonish feel.

Considering the weakness of the source material, one would be excused for approaching Eragon with trepidation. Such modulated caution, however, would not prepare the viewer for the pointlessness of the experience. Stefan Fangmeier, who comes from a visual effects background, is making his directorial debut and it's clear he has no understanding of how to sustain and nurture a narrative. Eragon offers some pretty images but it's soulless and heartless and not even worth seeing on DVD. Just re-watch Star Wars instead and pretend George Lucas has made another special edition with a dragon flying around. You'll have a better time. I guarantee it.

Eragon (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2006-12-15
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1