November 04, 2011

Eragon (2006)

Once upon a time, there was a young boy named Christopher Paolini, whose favorite hobby was to read fantasy books. Inspired by his favorite books and movies, Paolini decided to write his own fantasy stories, tales about worlds where dragons and magic existed, about the adventures of brave warriors and powerful sorcerers. Thus was the origin of "Eragon", Paolini's first completed book, which he self-published in 2002 with the support of his parents and their small publishing company. The young author got lucky, as the son of author Carl Hiaasen found a copy of this edition of "Eragon" in a bookstore. Hiaasen contacted his publisher and told him about Paolini, and soon the young writer had the chance of taking the story of Eragon to a greater audience. "Eragon", the debut novel became a best seller, and Christopher Paolini became one of the youngest writers in achieve success in fantasy fiction. Naturally, a movie version of the successful novel was the next step. Unfortunately, not everything came out as expected.

Eragon (Edward Speleers) is a young 17 years old teenager, who lives with his uncle Garrow (Alun Armstrong) and his cousin Roran (Christopher Egan) as farmers in the small town of Carvahall, part of the country of of Alagaësia, a fantastic land oppressed by the hand of its ruler, a man named Galbatorix (John Malkovich). After having eliminated his opposition, Galbatorix crowned himself king and rules Algaësia with an iron fist. One day, young Eragon finds a mysterious stone while going hunting, and to his surprise, what he thought was a stone is actually the rarest thing in the world: a dragon's egg. Soon the dragon is born, and Eragon finds himself being chosen by the dragon as her legitimate rider, and destined to be the hope of those who still want a country free of Galbatorix oppressive reign. With the aid of his dragon, Saphira (Rachel Weisz), and the guidance of an old warrior named Brom (Jeremy Irons), Eragon will finally be able to fulfill his dream of being a hero, a legendary Dragon Rider.

Ever since its first publishing as a novel, "Eragon" faced strong criticism due to the somewhat derivative nature of its storyline that more often than not tended to feel more like an imitation of classic works of the fantasy genre (such as "Lord of the Rings" or "Star Wars") than as an original work. Unfortunately, the adaptation to the big screen (by writer Peter Buchman) doesn't do much to deny the validity of those claims, and in fact looks precisely as a typical, clichéd carbon copy of previous (and better) fantasy stories. With major changes to the storyline, Buchman's work simplifies things and leaves "Eragon" void of the juvenile charm that prompted Paolini's novel to the best sellers lists. "Eragon" the novel wasn't a groundbreaking work, though it made for an new take on the classic "hero's journey" pattern; as adapted by Buchman, "Eragon" is a simplistic clone of "Star Wars" (itself perhaps one of the best versions of the "hero's journey" monomyth), lacking any identity of its own.

After having build up a career as visual effects supervisor in Industrial Light & Magic, Stefen Fangmeier debuts as a director in "Eragon", in an effort marred by the poor quality of its screenplay. As expected given his background, Fangmeier creates a visually arresting film, with a good array of great special effects that find their culmination in the realization of dragon Saphira, which in itself it's a remarkable technical achievement. Nevertheless, remarkable special effects aren't everything in a film, and "Eragon" proves again that cinema is all about the storyline, and no matter how good the special effects are, a lousy script tends to result in a lousy movie. Granted, good directing can make the exception, but Fangmeier's effort isn't enough to save the ill fated film, as his tacky narrative results in scenes that look beautiful but add little to the story, and in the end "Eragon" just feels like an incomplete, unfocused work that never reaches its potential.

The cast is another problem in the film, as the young inexperienced actors chosen to play the lead characters deliver a pretty average work that only makes the messy lines of dialog sound even worse than what they already are. Edward Speleers as Eragon is awfully wooden, and while he delivers the right amount of angst his teenage character requires, overall it seems that Speleers got the part based on his looks instead of his talents. Same case is the one of Sienna Guillory, whose bland performance as Arya never really becomes a believable role, looking dull and articial. Among the young cast the only saving grace is Garrett Hedlund as Murtagh, but his screen time is so limited that even when his performance is worthy, his character never goes beyond being a two-dimensional stereotype. Now, the adult cast has slightly better luck, starting with Jeremy Irons, who manages to deliver a dignified performance as Brom, but the highlight is Rachel Weisz as the voice of Saphira. Sadly John Malkovich goes over the top without adding depth to the villain he plays.

Director Stefen Fangmeier's lack of experience directing actors becomes notorious as there's no real balance between the cast's performances. Like other former Visual effects artists, Fangmeier shows great talent directing scenes based on physical actions and purely visual narrative (it's worth to point out that cinematographer Hugh Johnson makes a decent job); however his handling of dialog based scenes is pretty much disastrous. This results in an uneven quality in his storytelling, which feels dull and bland. However, the failure of "Eragon" should not be entirely blamed on the young cast or on its equally unexperienced director, but on the badly written screenplay that takes its storyline through every cliché in the post-Tolkien fantasy fiction. While being a film dealing with wizards and dragons, the film lacks any real sense of wonder, it just falls flat as simply another dull and average fantasy tale that unfolds its story without focus and without direction.

After the renewed interest in fantasy films sparked by the successful adaptations of J. K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series and Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings", many other adaptations of fantasy books began to be realized, in the hope of discovering a new successful franchise. Unfortunately for "Eragon"'s fans, Fangmeier's film version of Paolini's book is a quite uninspired film that failed to explore the story's potential. Full of clichés and common places, the screenplay only adds strength to the argument of derivative that Paolini's novel receives. While not entirely awful, "Eragon" is a subpar fantasy film; and the best sign of this is that the best acting in the film is done by an animated dragon.


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