Kicking off yet another projected cinematic trilogy laden with dungeons, dragons and digital wizardry, “Eragon” confirms that novelist Christopher Paolini is no J.R.R. Tolkien — but more to the point, helmer Stefen Fangmeier is no Peter Jackson. Appropriating all the external trappings of big-budget fantasy but none of the requisite soul, this leaden epic never soars like the CG-rendered fire-breather at the core of its derivative mythology. Fox’s meek marketing push is not a good omen for an oddly positioned year-end release, which may conjure early biz from the sword-and-sorcery set but should soon be era-gone from theaters.
Paolini was only 19 when “Eragon,” the first novel in his “Inheritance” trilogy, was privately published in 2002. Since then, the 500-plus-page tome has spawned a bestselling second edition (printed by Knopf) and an even longer sequel, “Eldest,” with a third volume currently in the works. No future films have yet been officially announced; presumably, that decision will await the performance of this decidedly inauspicious first outing.
The story unfolds in the realm of Alagaesia, a land once ruled by the noble Dragon Riders — until one of their own, the evil Galbatorix (John Malkovich), seized power by cutting down his fellow riders and nearly driving their steeds into extinction. Fortunately, one egg survived, fated to fall into the hands of a 15-year-old farm boy named Eragon (Ed Speleers), who is shocked to find himself branded by the newly hatched dragon as its rider.
The film’s prologue immediately invokes “The Lord of the Rings” with its grim narration about an epic clash between good and evil and an unlikely hero who would bring about salvation. To a certain extent, Fangmeier (a visual-effects man making his directorial debut) and scribe Peter Buchman are merely following the book, whose elaborate maps of imaginary worlds and smattering of invented Elvish dialects were clearly conceived from the Tolkien template.
But the film fails to duplicate the immersive narrative rhythms, the rough, tactile poetry or the beguiling sense of wonder — in short, the magic — that came so effortlessly to Jackson in his “Rings” adaptation. It does, however, boast plenty of exposition, anachronistic dialogue, Renaissance Faire-style posturing and enough arcane mythologies and barely pronounceable names (Ra’zac? Urgals?) to warrant a glossary in the press notes.
The challenge of paring down Paolini’s massive tale to a manageable length results in slapdash pacing: It takes all of five minutes for Eragon to get over the untimely death of his uncle Garrow (Alun Armstrong) and maybe five minutes more for his new pet to grow into an enormous, fully formed dragon named Saphira.
Standing 15 feet tall with a roughly 30-foot wingspan, Saphira reps an impressively gargantuan feat of character design, but the decision to anthropomorphize the dragon immediately renders her less interesting. Though she cannot speak, Saphira is linked telepathically to her rider, allowing Eragon and the audience to hear her decidedly human-like thoughts (voiced by Rachel Weisz).
Under the guidance of an Obi-Wan-like mentor named Brom (Jeremy Irons, providing invaluable support), Eragon and Saphira set out on a dangerous quest to reach a band of rebels known as the Varden. Obligatory scenes follow in which the vile Galbatorix orders his demon-possessed sorcerer Durza (Robert Carlyle, unrecognizable in a Marilyn Manson wig and zombie-pale makeup) to kill the rider and his dragon at any cost, leading to yet more obligatory skirmishes between Eragon and a horde of fierce but surprisingly vanquishable assassins.
“Yesterday, you were a farm boy; today, you are a hero,” intones Arya (Sienna Guillory), the beautiful maiden whom Eragon rescues. Her pronouncement sums up exactly what’s wrong with the movie: It’s so busy trying to strike all the right notes in the allotted timeframe that not a single narrative development — most crucially, Eragon’s evolution from naive stripling to powerful warrior-wizard — feels even remotely earned.
That’s partly due to Speleers, who resembles a youngish cross between Simon Baker and Mark Hamill, and whose blandness in the title role gives a viewer little to invest in. As the resident megalomaniacal villain, Malkovich rightly should have sent the material spiraling into camp, but he seems disappointingly straitjacketed by his chain mail. Only thesp who registers with an actual performance is Irons, whose resonant bass tones could make even banalities sound Shakespearean.
Widescreen cinematography repeatedly apes the vertiginous swooping cameras of “Lord of the Rings,” but despite the level of production detail and highly photogenic locations (pic was shot in Hungary and Slovakia), the illusion of a fully inhabited supernatural world never takes hold. Patrick Doyle’s score is less evocative than his music for “A Little Princess” and “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” would seem to promise.