Appellate Judge James A. Stewart once found a royal egg, but sent it back. He didn't want to be a chicken rider.
"You have powers you don't acknowledge, but there's a doom around you."
Christopher Paolini's story sounds like a fairy tale. While that could apply to the story he put on pages in Eragon, it also applies to the story of how Eragon made its way from his imagination to the big screen.
"The story of Eragon began as the daydreams of a teen. Christopher's love for the magic of stories led him to craft a novel that he would enjoy reading," the official site for his Inheritance Trilogy notes. The teenager didn't expect the book to see print, but his parents decided to publish it and promote it themselves. The story would have ended there, if not for author Carl Hiaasen, who hails from the mythical land of Miami but made a journey to Paolini's Montana to stumble on the self-published book. His stepson enjoyed it so much that he had to tell some friends at Alfred A. Knopf. The book went on to become a bestseller, with one sequel published in 2005 and another in the works.
After that, as the official site notes, "Christopher plans to take a long vacation, when he will ponder which of his many story ideas he will write next." It's hard to live happily ever after when there's always a deadline to meet, even if your work has become a major motion picture.
That movie is now out on DVD in Eragon (Two-Disc Special Edition). Does it have unacknowledged power, is there a doom around it, or does the truth lie somewhere in between?
Facts of the Case
"There was a time when the fierce and beautiful land of Alagaesia was ruled by men astride mighty dragons. To protect and serve was their mission and, for thousands of years, the people prospered. But the riders grew arrogant and began to fight among themselves for power …"
The winner was Galbatorix, who became king of Alagaesia. The losers were everybody else. The freedom fighters (Varden) headed for the mountains. There's only one thing that could stop Galbatorix—a stone that's in the possession of Arya (Sienna Guillory). When evil wizard Durza (Robert Carlyle, The World Is Not Enough) is about to capture her, she sends the stone…somewhere. Young hunter Eragon (Ed Speleers, in his first role) happens to be there to find it.
Since he's no dummy, Eragon tries to buy meat from the local butcher with the stone. Since he's no dummy, the butcher turns him down: "Put it back! It belongs to the king. Tell no one you have it. You'll endanger the whole village." Of course, Eragon doesn't put it back where he found it, but hides it in the barn of the farm he shares with his cousin and uncle.
The stone, of course, is an egg with a baby dragon inside. Or at least it was. Now it's a bunch of shattered fragments from which a baby dragon hatched. A mark appears on Eragon's hand which gives him a telepathic link with the dragon Saphira (voiced by Rachel Weisz, The Mummy), which very quickly grows up to be a huge dragon. Eragon soon learns that his destiny is to become a dragon rider.
Galbatorix isn't amused. "When the Varden learn the legend is real, they will be encouraged to challenge me—and I am not interested in being challenged," he tells Durza. Durza isn't convinced there's a problem. After all, Eragon's just a farm boy and the freedom fighters are too weak to pose any real threat. Still, he'll send something over to kill Eragon just to make the evil king happy.
After the something kills Eragon's uncle (Alun Armstrong, Van Helsing) instead, Brom (Jeremy Irons, Reversal of Fortune) turns up, first telling Eragon to get out of there before the something comes back, then urging him to fulfill his destiny. After all, he'll probably get killed anyway, since the best way to kill a dragon is to kill the rider.
Eragon, Brom, and Saphira have to journey to the mountains to find the rebels and lead them into the spectacular CGI-enhanced battle that will wrap up this movie.
Is evil king Galbatorix the pointy-haired boss of Dilbatorix or a relative of Asterix? There were times when I felt like I needed a glossary and flow chart to watch this movie, since it's full of odd character and place names (There is a glossary on Disc Two). It helps, however, to keep Star Wars in mind, since the elements—an evil empire, a farm boy whose destiny is to lead the rebels, a princess in distress, mysterious forces, and aerial battles—are very similar. The main difference is that our hero is riding a dragon rather than a starfighter. The closest the story comes to an alteration of those basic elements—other than failing to include any comic-relief counterparts to C3PO and R2D2—is to make Brom a combination of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Han Solo. He's a wise teacher but, like Solo, needs to find redemption. I suspect regular readers of fantasy novels will find other comparisons applicable as well.
Jeremy Irons as Brom gives the standout performance here as a mentor who has his own troubles. He also gets to provide the comic relief; he shines when he first meets the dragon—and shies away. Ed Speleers isn't as memorable as Mark Hamill, but he does okay as the Luke-like Eragon. Otherwise, the cast seems wasted, since the other characters don't get that many chances to shine. Evil wizard Durza, the movie's Darth Vader counterpart, could have used more screen time to establish his over-the-top villainous nature. Another character, Murtagh, pops up late in the movie to help Eragon find the Varden. The commentary suggests Murtagh will play an important role in the inevitable sequel, but his appearance seems wedged in. The deleted scenes reveal that Katrina, a character Christopher Paolini says will play a bigger role in the sequel novels, disappears entirely in the first film.
I haven't read the novel, but director Stefen Fangmeier mentions some of the changes he made in the adaptation. Most notably, he had the dragon Saphira suddenly, magically grow from baby to full-size. While this scene is admittedly spectacular, it goes by too quickly to establish the bond between dragon and rider.
The CGI animation of the dragon Saphira captures the magical quality of the mythological creature well. Her appearances—usually very suddenly, out of nowhere—and flights add a sense of joy to the mythical Alagaesian landscape. Rachel Weisz has fun with the voice of Saphira, managing to be both playful and serious in her mission at the same time.
Visually, the movie is splendid. Fangmeier shot on location in Hungary, Slovakia, and British Columbia—and threw in some CGI effects such as digital waterfalls—to get the vistas he wanted. Since many are seen from the point of view of Saphira or her rider Eragon, they had to be spectacular. Fangmeier, himself a visual effects whiz, mixes old-fashioned sets and effects in with the CGI dazzle to make for a movie that's more natural looking than many high-tech adventures. I had a screener copy, but the picture quality was excellent. The sound elements were a suitable match for the picture.
Fangmeier's commentary on Disc One was standard, pointing out what it took to put together each scene and crediting his production team. I was amused, though, to hear that the butcher shop, which used real meat, actually started to smell a little rotten during filming.
If you go to Disc Two, you'll find more than two hours of filmed extras, plus storyboards and text features. The features are located under a map of Alagaesia; that's why there's a strange town or geographical feature name after each one listed at right. Most of the material is concerned with the production, although Christopher Paolani takes a few minutes to let people know what's coming up in the sequels. The segments cover just about every angle involved in casting, visual effects, and the trilogy itself. The most interesting revelation is that Sienna Guillory and Djimon Hounsou did a lot of stunts themselves. The text material is extensive; I would have preferred a booklet similar to the ones in Criterion releases. Otherwise, the package delivers everything you'd expect from a bonus disc for an effects-laden movie.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The movie's ending has the open-ended quality that promises a sequel or two. If you don't want to get involved in another of these epics, steer clear.
Even with C3PO, R2D2, and Chewbacca nowhere to be found, Eragon doesn't have a doom around it. The familiar, hole-ridden story moves along quickly, as you might if you rode on a dragon's back. Since it took in more than $243 million worldwide at the box office and is one of the top sellers at Amazon.com, it's obvious there's a following, even if I didn't think it was that rare movie of unacknowledged power. The truth—and the viewing experience—lies somewhere in between. It's nothing you haven't seen before, but it's an agreeable movie that's likely to please fantasy and sci-fi fans.
Although not everything about his directorial debut was perfect, I'm looking forward to seeing more of first-time director Stefen Fangmeier's visual flair in his future projects.
Eragon may be guilty of treading well-hewn paths, but it's still entertaining. The defendant is free to go.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director Stefen Fangmeier (Disc One)
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