"Eragon" is based on the best-selling novel by Christopher Paolini, published in 2002 when the author was all of nineteen. Perhaps the book was a success because it was well-timed, arriving shortly after the release of 2001's "The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring
," the first in a hugely profitable and imaginative trilogy that inspired readers to crave anything in the fantasy realm. If this hacky cinematic adaptation is symptomatic of what the novel had to offer, then that is the one and only explanation that holds water. "Eragon" liberally steals from 1977's "Star Wars" and "The Lord of the Rings
" books and films to the point of plagiarism, all the while not introducing a solitary original idea, image or thought in its puny head. At a comparatively trim 104 minutes that only further proves how little substance there is to the story, at least it's over quickly.
Stop me if you've heard this one before. In the land of Alagaesia, 17-year-old Eragon (Ed Speleers) lives a happy and peaceful farm life with his uncle Garrow (Alun Armstrong). Soon after discovering a mysterious blue stone in the forest, a baby dragon hatches from it that Eragon calls Saphira (voiced by Rachel Weisz). For a place where dragons and so-called "dragon riders" are said to have once roamed the earth, Eragon and Saphira are suddenly and forever magically linked to one another. When the maniacal King Galbatorix (John Malkovich) learns of the egg, he vows to claim it for himself with the help of a powerful Shade named Durza (Robert Carlyle). Following the murder of his uncle, Eragon sets off with Saphira and wise town storyteller Brom (Jeremy Irons) for revenge. Their dangerous journey includes saving imprisoned elf and former protector of the egg, Arya (Sienna Guillory), and making their way to the Varden, a rebel community preparing for battle against King Galbatorix's approaching minions.
Generically directed by first-time filmmaker Stefen Fangmeier, "Eragon" has the misfortune of coming to theaters after "The Lord of the Rings
" trilogy and 2005's "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
," like-minded fantasy projects that were epic in scope, emotionally viable, and a marvel of craftsmanship. "Eragon" tries to copy them in look, size and subject matter, but comes up embarrassingly short. The elements that were so great in those aforementioned pictures is rendered sophomoric, derivative and underdeveloped here. What should, in essence, be a touching tale of a boy and his fire-breathing soul mate is largely absent of heart and too cookie-cutter to be dramatic. The movie also lacks depth, not only in its characters but in its vision, which blatantly borrows sets, art direction and full shots from "The Lord of the Rings
" and "Star Wars" while looking like a made-for-cable version of them.
If director Stefen Fangmeier gets anything right, it is the visual effects that bring Saphira to life. This shouldn't come as a surprise since Fangmeier has an extensive filmography as a special effects supervisor, but the almost photorealistic depiction of Saphira as she flies through the air and seamlessly interacts with the live-action characters is nonetheless worth mentioning. As a computer creation, Saphira is impressive. As a character herself, she is botched by a screenplay from Peter Buchman (2003's "Jurassic Park III
"), Jesse Wigutow (2003's "It Runs in the Family
"), and Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal (2006's "Flicka
") that fails to give her a personality. Having Rachel Weisz (2006's "The Fountain
") voice her is also an ill fit made even more awkward because Saphira telepathically speaks to Eragon in lieu of moving her mouth.
The human and elvish characters are walking clichés from the "Fantasy Writing for Dummies" handbook and never satisfactorily distinguished beyond stick figure status. Eragon, apparently a cousin of Luke Skywalker's, is a scrappy and determined enough underdog as the title hero, but he is an uninspired writing construct. Newcomer Ed Speleers gives an uneven performance as Eragon, wavering between capable and stiff. Jeremy Irons (2005's "Kingdom of Heaven
") attempts to bring dignity to the role of self-appointed mentor Brom, but narrowly misses the mark. Sienna Guillory (2004's "Resident Evil: Apocalypse
") is a poor man's Liv Tyler as elf warrior Arya, bereft of life. Garrett Hedlund (2004's "Troy
") exhibits a bit more personality as Murtagh, a mysterious stranger who offers help to Eragon along his quest, but hasn't much to do once he enters the proceedings. Finally, John Malkovich (2005's "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
") makes for an awful villain as King Galbatorix, who sits around and barks instructions. Malkovich is over-the-top and strictly forgettable in equal measures, looking as if he has ended up in a film being made by Uwe Boll.
The climactic air battle pitting Saphira and Eragon against Durva and his black magic-created dragon is good for a few thrills and is the only excitement the picture is able to ratchet up. Everything else about "Eragon" is but a pale, shameful attempt to cash in on the popularity of other recent Christmas-released fantasy adventure flicks. The film is truly lackluster to the nth degree, and an open ending that suggests a forthcoming adaptation of Christopher Paolini's second book in the Inheritance trilogy, "Eldest," may be jumping the gun. Once audiences get a taste of the insipid mess that is "Eragon," 20th Century Fox will have a tough time convincing anyone but the most die-hard fans to return for another helping.