Is there anything worse than a bad fantasy movie? I can deal with middling dramas, stupid chick flicks and lame slasher movies. I can even enjoy the most godawful of campy musicals ('Showgirls' rules, okay?) But if you're going to put fairies and elves and dragons in your movie, and it still sucks, well then you really have some explaining to do.
'Eragon,' unfortunately, sucks hard. It was obviously made to cash in on the post-'Lord of the Rings' fantasy bonanza, which has Hollywood apparently now thinking that any even half-decent literary phenomenon must of course make for an instant blockbuster movie franchise. 'Eragon' is based on the first of adolescent author Christopher Paolini's self-proclaimed Inheritance Trilogy, an inexplicable publishing phenomenon that has racked up huge book sales purely by being 'Lord of the Rings'-lite for the pre-teen set. And while it is impressive that Paolini first wrote "Eragon" at the tender age of fifteen, the author has said that it was only because he couldn't find anything to read in the local library, and unfortunately, the lack of inspiration shows.
The plot: It is the far-away world of Alagaesia, where darkness rules. Tyrannical ruler Galbatorix (John Malkovich) was once a grand dragon rider, but is now intent on wiping out the rest of his mythic race. Of course, a prophecy has been pre-ordained, and into this battle is supposed to rise up a savior who will challenge the established order and defeat the dreaded Ra'zac (voiced by Spencer Wilding) and his supernatural army of angry Urgals. Cut to a dark and stormy night, when young Eragon (Edward Speleers) is out hunting, and a magic blue stone appears before him -- the last remaining dragon egg. It hatches, and Eragon is anointed a dragon rider. With the help of mysterious local Brom (Jeremy Irons) and an elf Princess named Arya (Sienna Buillory), Eragon heads for the kingdom to free the people of Alagaesia. The battle won't be easy -- Galbatorix will stop at nothing to kill Eragon, sending his sinister sorcerer Durza (Robert Carlyle) to ensure his destruction.
'Eragon' is cobbled together from a million other, better fantasy and sci-fi movies. See if you can spot all the homages, pastiches and rip-offs from 'Rings,' 'Star Wars,' 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,' 'Harry Potter,' 'Legend,' 'Dragonslayer' and 'Willow.' I even thought I spotted a few lifts from video and dorky card games, like "The Legend of Zelda," "Magic: The Gathering" and, of course, "Dungeons & Dragons." Perhaps if 'Eragon' had at least been an exciting adventure, with cool creatures and memorable characters, all the thinly-veiled plagiarism wouldn't have been so bad. But the film is flat, trite and rather homogenized. I never would have thought dragons could be so boring.
The level of acting talent assembled for such a derivative story is rather aamazing. I guess when something is designed as a movie for kids, A-list actors figure the audience won't notice if the script blows? I'm still amazed that Irons could barely muster up some really bad Obi-Wan shtick, and Malkovich appears to simply skulking about, looking ashamed to be cashing the paycheck. Even Djimon Hounsou (as rebel leader Ajihad), who is usually such a commanding presence onscreen, seems to be lost in front of all the blue screens, as if he'd been calling the Lucasfilm ranch all day to see how in the heck he's supposed to act convincingly next to a puppet on a stick.
So, is there anything fun about 'Eragon?' Well, some of the effects aren't bad. I also liked the production design, costumes and sets, which are all competent. Plus, the dragons can,/em> be kind of cool, even if they really have little to do with the actual story. But still, 'Eragon' remains as hollow as a rotting tree, with nothing to distinguish it from other, better, films in the fantasy pantheon. Even the visuals are dull -- German director Stefen Fangmeier, making his feature film debut, can't bring any unique visual style to the cliches. I thought I had never heard of Fangmeier, until I checked his IMDB credits and remembered that he's been doing effects work for years on major Hollywood hits. It's a resume that is a nice analogy to sum up 'Eragon' -- all sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Fox Home Entertainment brings 'Eragon' to Blu-ray day-and-date with the standard-def release. As such, it's a fresh master, and this 1080p/MPEG-2 encode can be impressive to look at. The transfer does have some problems, but overall the presentation is clear, detailed and colorful.
The plusses include a pristine source, featuring rich blacks and contrast with plenty of pop. Colors are bold and vibrant, and free of chroma noise. The film is often dark (especially all the nighttime sequences that are dominated by deep blues), but a properly calibrated monitor reveals fine details even in the shadows, which gives the transfer a pleasing sense of depth. Major compression artifacts are also not a problem, as I noticed no obvious macroblocking or posterization.
However, the film's CGI can be chintzy at times. These moments have a softer quality, and occasionally it's visually jarring with the rest of the film. I was also disappointed by what looked like some digital processing to remove grain, which further softens even non-effects shots. Edge enhancement is slight, but there were moments of jaggies -- usually on long shots with very hard lines. Such drawbacks are not so severe as to ruin this otherwise very strong transfer, but they do stop me from placing 'Eragon' among the top tier of Blu-ray presentations that I've seen.
As good as the video transfer is on 'Eragon,' the audio is even better. Fox serves up another DTS HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 surround track, and it's a winner. Unfortunately I have continue to lament the fact that current Blu-ray hardware has yet to offer full DTS HD decoding, leaving me to enjoy only the "core" 1.5mpbs DTS track contained within, but this mix is impressive enough that I can only imagine how much more exciting it will sound in full high-resolution.
As you might expect, 'Eragon' excels with action. The film's sound design heavily favors these sequences, which can deliver a near-perfect illusion of total immersion. Dragon wings flap about, the monsters roar, and lots of things whoosh all around, producing an effect that is almost always one hundred percent convincing. Tonal clarity and realism to the rear effects is excellent, and channel pans are smoothly transparent.
The rest of the mix is a bit more boring. Dialogue scenes usually have a good amount of sustained ambiance, but it's slightly muted and probably the only weak aspect of this presentation for me. Dynamics are excellent, though, with massive low bass at times, and clean fidelity to the mid- and high-range. Volume balance is also pleasing, with even low-spoken dialogue clear and intelligible. Top quality stuff here.
Fox really went bare-bones for the next-gen release of 'Eragon.' Despite issuing a fully-loaded two-disc standard DVD edition, the Blu-ray is almost completely devoid of extras. Whatever!
The only real extra is almost hidden from view -- in facdt, I didn't even know it was on the disc as Fox doesn't list it on the back of the box. Director Stephen Fangmeier offers a solo audio commentary, which is largely technical. As a former commercial director, this is not a surprise. Fangmeier fills us in on how the most complex shots were executed, and largely from an effects standpoint. The changes from book to film are also gingerly touched upon, though there is little passion here. Quite frankly, I'm not shocked the film feels like a project-for-hire, made by someone trying to break into the ranks of feature film directors. It's an OK track on its own, but like the movie itself, rather pedestrian.
The only other extras are a colleciton of measly high-definition trailers, with spots for 'Eragon' plus 'Fantastic Four,' 'Ice Age 2,' 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,' 'X-Men: The Last Stand' and 'Night at the Museum.' Woo-hoo!
As a movie, 'Eragon' just wasn't a success for me. It felt like a cheesy Hallmark Hall of Fame fantasy movie, only with better special effects. Perhaps if the film had not been so obviously geared (and dumbed down) for the tween set, it might have worked better. Alas, this Blu-ray release is also something of a letdown. The video and audio are really quite good, but Fox has inexplicably dropped all of the extras from the standard-def release aside from a single commentary. As far as I'm concerned, this is no way to launch a new format. I'm even knocking this one down an extra half-star just because of the insult factor in charging a list price of $39.95 for such a bare-bones release. Even fans of the film would be well advised to leave 'Eragon' as a rental until the real feature-packed Blu-ray version comes along.