By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 15, 2006
It may be worth the eight and a half bucks you have to pay the makers of "Eragon" just to hear the great English actor Jeremy Irons say the line, "Before you can cast a spell, you must learn the magic language of the elves."
And that is not the only silly line Irons, with his grave face and tragic mien, is required to utter in this silly symphony of a film. It's just the one that stuck in my mind, with the delicious upturn of "elves" at the end.
Irons, who looks as though he just cycled in nonstop on Route 66 from a roadshow company of "Hamlet" in Oklahoma City, is cast as Brom, spiritual adviser to boy dragon rider Eragon and general font of wisdom for a movie that features little beyond his own sense of craft and a pretty good flyin' lizard. Everyone else -- save one -- looks as if they were recruited at the Renaissance Fair in Anne Arundel County. The exception is the brilliant African actor Djimon Hounsou, who has never been less brilliant; he appears to be wearing Sidney Poitier's pageboy wig from 1963's "The Long Ships."
Oh, wait, the movie has made me incoherent. Another exception would be John Malkovich, also a brilliant actor at his least brilliant, hamboning it up as the bad king Galbatorix of Alagaesia. He seems like he's on crack or something.
Alas, these great actors, this great dragon, even the good-spirited Anne Arundelian Renaissance Festival staff, all revolve around a rather dim young man named Ed Speleers, who appears to be pleasant enough but who has the charisma of a smile button, as well as the complexity. Why 20th Century Fox mounted a $70 million fantasy on his frail shoulders is a question that can never be answered, although it appears that someone affiliated with the movie realized they had a problem, and late in the going, a new young hero (Garrett Hedlund), far more charismatic than poor Ed, is brought in to fire off a few arrows and brood sexily in the background. Why, you sit there wondering, wasn't the movie about this kid?
At any rate, the plot can be described as a kind of Vulcan mindmeld of classics ersatz and authentic -- that is, from "Lord of the Rings" to King Arthur. In the gorgeous Middle Earth that is Alagaesia (it's actually Hungary), the evil Galbatorix has destroyed all the dragon riders (they would be guys who ride dragons and keep the peace, I guess, though the movie's kind of hazy on details) and taken over in your usual today-Alagaesia-tomorrow-the-world fashion. Meanwhile, a young beauty played dimly by Sienna Guillory escapes from his castle with the last dragon egg, which, though she is pursued by evil shade Durza (they couldn't come up with a better name than that?), she manages to deliver to farmboy-archer Eragon, fated to be the new dragon rider. Eragon: Air Dragon, get it?
The little beast is born, a kind of blue feathered puppy that sounds just like R2-D2 and seems to arrive already housebroken. Soon enough it's as big as a locomotive and fallen hero Brom (poor Irons) shows up to teach the kid the ropes, get him out of the country to the hinterlands where the freedom-fighting Vardon live, and let him lead the revolution against Galbatorix. The king dispatches Durza -- played by the feisty Scotsman Robert Carlyle under Brenda Starr's wig, which must have been in the makeup department next to Poitier's -- to prevent all this from happening.
Well, there's a lot of running around and medieval snippery, but the upshot is a big battle under the ground, which comes to turn on a dragon-to-dragon dogfight over the trenches, just like the one between Roy Brown and Manfred von Richthofen. Or, since the great heroes Brown and Von Richthofen are sadly forgotten, maybe I should say (sigh) between Snoopy and the Red Baron. It's definitely the highlight of the movie and the one instance where director Stefen Fangmeier, an ex-special effects computer ace, can show his stuff.
After the bad acting by the slumming great actors, the next best thing in the picture is the dragon. While I don't think giving it a cuddly human personality and the vocals of Rachel Weisz helps much, the thing itself -- part dog, part fish, part weasel, part dinosaur -- is a terrific illusion and the technical team manages to really sell the idea of flight.
Too bad the acting is so lame, the story so derivative and the thing so long. The best dragon movie remains, by a long shot, 1981's "Dragonslayer."
Eragon (104 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for ample but bloodless battle violence.