So, how much do you penalize an entertaining film for being wholly derivative?
That's the big question surrounding "Eragon," a fantasy flick based on the young adult novels written by teenager Christopher Paolini. Anyone who watches the family-friendly film version will see obvious similarities to "Star Wars," "Lord of the Rings," and "Dragonheart," among other fantasy films. Is it as good as any of those? Not really. But it's also not as bad as critics have claimed.
If you can put the whole notion of derivation out of your mind, this film by first-time director Stefan Fangmeier (who was visual effects supervisor on "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" and "A Perfect Storm") has a decent plot, engaging enough characters, beautiful location shots, and decent (if not spectacular) special effects.
I think the operative phrase to keep in mind here is young adult. "Eragon" wasn't written for adults, and the movie version certainly isn't pitched at adults. The hero is a teenager, and it's basically a boy-and-his-dog story with a dragon, instead. Like Luke Skywalker, young Eragon (played by newcomer Ed Speleers, who beat out 180,000 wannabes) is a farm boy who lives with an uncle. If you recognize the similarity, you already know that the uncle (Alun Armstrong) is going to come up dead meat, and that with no ties to hold him back, the young hero will forge ahead.
Every questing hero needs a guide. Luke had Obi-wan Kenobi, and Eragon has a former dragonrider named Brom (Jeremy Irons) who is no longer practicing the knightly art. Reason? All of the dragons and dragonriders disappeared during a battle which saw Galbatorix (John Malkovich) take over the rule of this Middle or whatever Kingdom. And Brom is feeling partly responsible, because aside from one dragon secreted away by the dragonrider gone bad, he killed the last one by taking revenge on the rider who went over to the dark side. There's even a counterpart to the Siths in the Shades, with Durza (Robert Carlyle, giving a performance that's light years away from "The Full Monty") practicing the dark arts and zapping people with his fingers the way the old Emperor did in "Star Wars." Instead of a light saber, Eragon has a dragon sword. And you know that, just as Obi-wan was fated to die after he instructed his pupil, old Brom wasn't going to last forever. There's a princess, too (Sienna Guillory, as Arya), and if she turns out to be Eragon's sister in the second installment, though I haven't read the book, you know why I won't be surprised. Meanwhile, the good vs. evil battle harkens back to both "Star Wars" and "Lord of the Rings," with a little Harry Potter thrown in for good measure as Eragon has to learn Elf language in order to work magic spells. It may seem like a shameless rip-off to adults, but show me a movie these days that isn't derivative. I think we cry "derivative" when a film incorporates the elements in an unsuccessful way.
For the target market, which is young adults and children, I think that "Eragon" hits the mark. It's rated PG, and while there are some violent episodes, the film stays true to that young adult audience--and that includes keeping it relatively short at 103 minutes. And you can't beat that newborn dragon sequence for cute.
Speleers reminds us of a young Heath Ledger, a likeable fellow who's not nearly as golly-gee wide-eyed as Luke Skywalker. And he and Brom have the kind of mentor/trainee relationship that's enjoyable to watch. John Malkovich is, well, John Malkovich as King Galbatorix, who sends out his chief Shade, Durza, and his minions to gain possession of the last dragon egg. Arya (Sienna Guillory) swiped it from the king, and the prophecy is that the day of the dragonriders will come again, with a new dragonrider leading the rebellion. Yes, like rebel forces hiding out on a faraway planet, we have the Varden, one of the last groups of resistance fighters who are waiting to be led into battle by the prophesied dragonrider.
The dragon itself looks awfully good, and like Sean Connery's voice-activated fire-breather in "Dragonheart," we get a believable relationship between dragon Saphira (voiced by Rachel Weisz) and young Eragon, whom she chose to be her rider. But when it comes right down to it, this was adapted from a young adult novel, part of Christopher Paolini's Inheritance Trilogy, and adults would do better to watch fantasy films made for adults. For the target audience, though, "Eragon" does pretty well.
The 1080p picture looks great, but fans of the film are going to have to choose between standard disc with scads of bonus features or this bare-bones Blu-ray. Transferred to Blu-ray using MPEG-2 technology at 20MBPS and presented in 2.35:1 widescreen, "Eragon" looks really, really good--especially considering that so many of the scenes are murky or shot in darkness. Every frame has photorealisitic sharpness, except for one sequence that has background graininess which may or may not be deliberate.
The audio is also quite good, with the featured option a DTS HD 5.1 master lossless and additional soundtracks in French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. Subtitles are in English (CC) and Spanish. There's decent rear-speaker action and times when the room fills with sound, especially during battle sequences and we hear ambient noises coming from all directions.
Here's where fans are going to scream bloody murder. The two-disc standard DVD was loaded with extras, but the only thing we get here are theatrical trailers and (not listed on the back of the box) the director's commentary. Rumor has it that Fox was viewing this as some franchise film, a blockbuster that was going to pay the studio exec salaries for years to come. I'm not so sure that I believe that. So far with Blu-ray, perceived blockbusters have been put on the more expensive 50-gig discs. This one's on a 25GB, which makes me think that they knew this was for a juvenile market all along.
In his commentary, Fangmeier mostly talks about where each scene was filmed and how they got the shot, but there are also plenty of roads-not-taken that he shares with viewers. Fangmeier also points out some of the many differences between the book and the film, and explains that they decided not to have electrical "sparkles" coming out of Durza's fingertips as he zaps people because "it's been done before." So the director was plainly aware of the connections to "Star Wars" and other films. It's a better-than-average commentary, but not much compensation for all of the other missing extras.
Mostly filmed in Hungary but with additional footage of the mountains in Slovakia and Vancouver, "Eragon" provides some stunning cinematographic sequences, and the village sets convincingly take us back to medieval times. The acting is decent (except for those over-the-top villains, which is par for the course) and the special effects are nothing to sneer about. If you've been holed up in an outpost somewhere and have never seen "Star Wars," "Lord of the Rings," "Dragonheart," "Harry Potter," or "Willow," this movie would probably merit a 7 out of 10, which, on the DVD Town scale is "a good film with more merits than not." Taking off a point for being derivative makes it a 6, "a passably decent film, but not one to get too excited about." And I think that's fair.