2 stars


23rd December 2006

Nerds have been well catered for in cinemas in recent years. You've had Tolkien's Hobbit adventures, which have seen acne-scarred armies take over the multiplex; the Harry Potter films have had amateur magicians vigorously stroking their wands for years; even comic-book nerds have had their inkiest wank fantasies transferred to the silver screen. But there's one sub-section of nerd that all other nerds look down on: the D&D nerd. Aside from the Rings trilogy - the acceptable face of fantasy - Dungeons & Dragons-type fare has not been well-represented at the movies at all, and for good reason; picture a typical D&D fan and you'll conjure up images of a dice-rolling twat in a magic hat with +1 Body Odour, a foam sword and a Magic Shield to protect him from female attention. Not the kind of fellow likely to venture outside to his local cinema. Even Star Trek fans get out once in a while.

Although Eragon doesn't feature any dice-rolling per se, it is geekier than a HeroQuest convention, with swords, sorcery and magic abound. Written as it was by a 15 year-old boy, this is not particularly surprising, nor is the fact that it's a fairly unoriginal tale encompassing all your typical fantasy clichés, including dragons, wizards and an epic tale of discovery. Young Eragon (Speleers) is but a simple farm boy who stumbles across a giant egg in the forest. When the egg hatches into - dun dun duuun - a female dragon called Saphira, it becomes apparent that fate has dictated that Eragon will become a mythical dragon rider, and under the tutelage of town elder Brom (Irons), he'll fulfil his destiny. This understandably angers evil King Galbatorix (Malkovich), who thought he'd wiped out all the dragon riders in order to secure himself ultimate power, so he sends out lackey and Wormtongue lookey-likey Durza (Robert Carlyle) to finish off the young pretender to his throne. There then follows several hours of elves, magic spells, dragon fights and ridiculous place names: you may feel the need to take a shower afterwards.

While the first immediate comparison might be Lord of the Rings, Eragon has much more in common with the first Star Wars movie. For example, you've got your young farm boy, Eragon Skywalker, living with his uncle and unaware of his true parentage. Then you've got mentor Obi-Brom Kenobi, the grizzled mentor wise in the ways of the world. Substitute the mythical dragon riders for Jedi Knights and Malkovich's evil overlord for a dude named Darth and you've pretty much got a carbon copy of A New Hope, down to a scene where our young hero gazes longingly out over his land at sunset. Unfortunately, Eragon himself doesn't have any homosexual robot friends, but maybe they're saving them for the sequel.

Obviously Eragon was always going to suffer from such comparisons, but it's just not original enough to forge an identity of its own. Speleers, though confident in his first major role, is just an identikit kid, interchangeable with the chiselled blonde mop-tops from Stormbreaker, Narnia et al. Malkovich, who'd normally eat the roof off a gig like this, literally gets about five lines of dialogue in which to be menacing, a difficult task considering his lines were written by a hormonal teenager. Carlyle's Durza is the real villain of the piece, an effective bad guy but one that was never going to make it to the end credits (though he certainly looks the part). The biggest culprit of all is the dragon itself, Saphira. As well as sounding like she's sponsored by Renault, this lame duck of a dragon has precisely zero personality, thanks to Rachel Weisz's pedestrian line readings. I'm not sure how the D&D community feels about talking dragons (I'm sure it's a point of furious debate) but Saphira communicates by reading Eragon's thoughts, and vice versa, meaning you've got one tight-lipped dragon on your hands. Presumably no mouth animation saved on the SFX budget, but if you're going to have a film about a dragon, at least make it an impressive one - compared to Sean Connery's scaly Scot in Dragonheart and the fire-breathing death bastards of Reign Of Fire, Eragon's winged beastie is a big-time cop-out.

Where Peter Jackson's Rings trilogy looked as though it had every WETA super-computer busting its chips to get the special effects looking out of this world, Eragon merely looks like the effects department pulled a couple of late nights and the occasional weekend (odd, considering director Fangmeier is one of the best FX bods in the business). Everything is distinctly small scale and has a definite CBBC feel about it. Maybe it would have been better suited to a kid's TV mini-series, as it's particularly episodic in nature - bit-part characters like Djimon Hounsou's wig-wearing warrior Ajihad and lank-haired ally Murtagh surely only made the grade on the promise of expansion in a sequel. Quite frankly, you won't care enough to want to see more of them, and the same goes for the production as a whole - it just doesn't make enough of an impression.

It's not all doom and gloom; Irons is fairly affable as Brom, Speleers isn't entirely without talent and Carlyle is clearly relishing playing a non-shit baddie (see: The World is Not Enough). Besides, given its subject matter, the kids will go bonkers for it in the absence of any Harry Potter movies at Christmas. It just never quite kicks into a higher gear, and when the bar has been set so high in the genre by you know who, anything below par was always going to come off as second best. Not an entirely wasteful way to spend a mid-December afternoon then, but still not fit to lick the Orc shite off Tolkien's leather boots.

More:  Fantasy  Family
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