2006Director: Stefen Fangmeier
Cast: Ed Speleers, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Guillory
holesale pop songs, cheap pot, and a faint glance of recognition from the girl next door: Welcome to coming of age in Hollywood, where youthful exploits have long provided some of the easiest exploitation in the industry. The secret to their vitality—and to the health of any genre cash-in—lies in their ability to change shape between generations. Whereas adolescent strife was once put to rest with a peppy script from a Cameron Crowe contemporary and a B-list teen idol, nowadays it calls for a storybook legend with a high-tech fire-breathing sidekick.
So it is in Eragon, the noblest (and lamest) of teen fairy tales, digging into the early adventures of the titular predestined savior (played here by the suitably dashing Brit Ed Speleers). Chosen to hasten the return of the “Dragon Riders” years after one of their own (John Malkovich) waged a devastating war against them, Eragon is guided by a jaded local (Jeremy Irons) and Saphira, a giant telekinetic dragon (goofily voiced by Rachel Weisz). Enemies include a small army of curiously Orc-like creatures and a Gothic warlock (Robert Carlyle) who spends more time hissing and executing his own men than he does searching for Eragon in the first place.
The film is adapted from the novel by Christopher Paolini (just 18 when it was first published), a quaint Midwestern subject home-schooled in Montana and known to travel in Renaissance garb to promote his book. Apparently Paolini’s vehicle to explain himself to his peers (or to get laid), Eragon reveals not only his unabashed readiness to pillage fantasy godfathers like J.R.R. Tolkien and George Lucas but, more to the point, his desire to meet a girl who isn’t a large purple reptile. The novel’s seven-figure sales surely helped with the latter ambition.
This film version has proven less of success for Stefen Fangmeier, a first-time director previously restricted to the role of tech geek on films like A Series of Unfortunate Events and Master and Commander. Even with Fangmeier’s pedigree and a $100 million dollar price tag, the movie’s digital effects (the promise for which no doubt landed him the job) are artificial and cartoonish, barely convincing enough—save for a serviceable final sequence—to hold the tenuous reins of the story through each of its frantic contortions.
To be fair, the cut-and-paste screenplay by Peter Buchman (Jurassic Park III) converts Paolini’s routine text into the most perfunctory genre exercise of the season, directly emulating (or, if you prefer, thieving) entire sequences from superior fare of recent years. Considering the triumph of both the Lord of the Rings trilogy and high-profile entries in celebrated series like Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia, producing a first-rate fantasy is admittedly a tall order. But Eragon neither embraces nor even acknowledges the challenge. Instead, it proceeds as if it is the first of its ilk both in narrative and visual imagination, and this naiveté renders the film not only a failure, but an irritating one.
Established youth talent wisely passed on the project, leaving the title role to Speleers, a wide-eyed lothario who in his debut is just as bad an actor as he is a predestined teen pin-up. All brooding stares and hunky grins, the actor plays Eragon as a whiny oaf whose likeability ebbs away as he makes one obvious misstep after another. The film is intended primarily as the tale of a young hero’s sudden thrust into manhood, but Spellers doesn’t register a single lesson along his fractured journey. A typical character would falter through half of Eragon’s mistakes before shaping up, but even by the climactic bid to save his dragon’s life, the boy has clearly learned nothing.
An impressively wasted assembly of supporting actors (Robert Carlyle, Djimon Hounsou, Jeremy Irons) must have some very convincing preteens in their lives, but no one manages to fall quite as low as John Malkovich (just a little eye-liner away from full-on drag). In a role that would seem a cozy fit for his idiosyncratic talents—playing the fussy overlord who idles away in some far-off tower for no reason other than to unleash a new round of demons on our hero—he botches his shot at good-natured camp, barking off his lines as if he couldn’t be more bothered to pick up an easy paycheck. It’s stunningly callous work, as joyless to watch as it apparently was to perform.
Luckily for Malkovich, his grand folly is buried beneath Eragon’s many failings, which are as varied as they are damning. As the coming-of-age market becomes overrun by digital mischief and fantasy boilerplate, Eragon’s gravest misstep lies in its inability to unravel the secret to its genre’s resurgence: the tiny, passing moments of youth that define the hero’s transition into adulthood.
Eragon is currently playing in wide release.