Eragon: Special Edition (2 Discs) Review
It is a time of darkness in Alagaësia. Those old enough to remember and brave enough to withstand the attentions of the guards talk of the Dragon Riders, when order was maintained throughout the land, fields rippled with crops and there was the freedom to do as one desired. Only one, Brom (Jeremy Irons), will speak of the old days but each word he speaks put his life in jeopardy. What he speaks of are the days before Galbatorix (John Malkovich), a Dragon Rider who tricked all of the others with his black magic and who now rules from the city of Urû'baen with fear, his armies, his servant Durza (Robert Carlyle) and the black dragon, Shruikan, that he has enslaved. But Brom is thought to be little more than a drunk and with each tale of days passed, those in Carvahall nod to one another and make mischief at one who's wits have been dulled by strong liquor.
Carvahall is the home of Eragon (Edward Speleers), a teenage boy who, when out hunting one night in The Spine, comes upon a strange blue stone. Taking it home, Eragon hides it until, to his surprise, it hatches and out comes a small dragon, which he names Saphira (Rachel Weisz). Saphira refuses his offer of milk and bread, choosing instead to satisfy its hunger with a rat, after which it takes to the skies, growing quickly to being close to its adult size. But a dragon and its rider are not easily hidden and in spite of Eragon's best efforts, the evil Ra'zac, servants of Galbatorix, travel the short distance to Carvahall in search of the dragon and to kill its rider. As Brom rouses himself from his depression, Eragon and Saphira prepare to do battle with Galbatorix but must contend with Durza, who haunts Eragon's dreams...
Back! Go back through the mists that surround us to times past! No, not to medieval times, when it may have been that knights rode through the British and Irish countryside in search of dragons to slay but to the nineteen-eighties and -nineties, a time before the film adaptations of The Lord Of The Rings when fantasy films were dreadful things enjoyed only by those with an unhealthy interest in Dungeons & Dragons. Personally, I'm thinking of Hawk The Slayer, Beastmaster, Red Sonja, Conan The Barbarian (and Destroyer) and Krull, when various hastily constructed castles would wobble as British character actors would stalk their battlements and preposterously-named villains would invade rural parts in search of a mystical stone, a mirror or the only weapon capable of destroying them. Or, in the case of Krull, Lysette Anthony, which, as anyone with any knowledge of Three Up, Two Down, was a prize worth travelling through space and time for, as the Beast was wont to do. It was a time of Runequest, Fighting Fantasy and Arnold Schwarzenegger punching a camel with films that paid homage to the roleplaying world created by TSR and which were routinely awful. So much so and entirely without exception that one didn't expect anything else.
Then Peter Jackson made the The Lord Of The Rings and had such success with the trilogy that if it didn't make some knowledge of the Nazgul respectable then at least not as cripplingly embarrassing as it once was. Jackson also raised the bar for what an audience expected of a fantasy film and so instead of James Earl Jones turning into a snake, Francesca Annis becoming a spider and Marc Singer having a couple of ferrets under his control, we had Sir Ian McKellen returning from the dead and leading his army into battle by the dawn light. Given that The Lord Of The Rings was something of a blip, what then for fantasy? Well, in spite of much that you will have read about Eragon, it's not quite the awful experience that it's reputed to be, at least not if you have fond memories of the likes of Conan The Barbarian.
Indeed, there is much to enjoy in Eragon, with the tale starting in the manner of all such fare with a young lad finding that his dreary existence in a little village is about to change. Rather than finding out that he can master the beasts (or, rather, just the four of them), that his brother is the evil Jack Palance or that his father was a Jedi Knight, Eragon discovers that he has possession of the first dragon to be born since the great battle that, years before, did for the dragons and Dragon Riders. Only one egg survived that day and Arya (Sienna Guillory) takes it from Galbatorix under cover of night and, one assumes, more besides, finally ridding herself of it and into the hands of Eragon. Initially, the boy doesn't know quite what to do with it, thinking that he'll trade it for a prime cut of meat at one stage but soon it hatches and like Luke Skywalker being given his late father's lightsaber, Eragon begins to realise his destiny and takes his first step on the path that will restore the Dragon Riders to the seat of order in Alagaësia.
Of course, given the way of such things, Eragon doesn't really have much say in the matter as fate would have it that he is the hero that Alagaësia has awaited. Somehow, all manner of seers, psychics, warriors and wizards stumble out of the forests to help him on his way, with the very lowest turn being that of singer Joss Stone as Angela, blind but able to see Eragon's future. This short appearance in the film doesn't just suggest that she cannot act but that she can't actually manage to speak coherently, which might be old news to those who saw her at this year's Brit Awards but you'd have thought they might have tidied her up during post-production. Elsewhere, Jeremy Irons looks happy at the few weeks that he spent outdoors while making no great efforts in his playing of Brom, Robert Carlyle and John Malkovich were, on the basis of their over-the-top performances, doing a favour to some children they know and Djimon Hounsou (as Ajihad) suggests that the Varden, a band of freedom fighters, have come to Alagaësia by way of the Elephant and Castle. Sienna Guillory is no worse here than she was in the part of Jill Valentine in Resident Evil: Apocalypse and, oddly, Edward Speleers acquits himself very well as Eragon, holding the film with an innocence that befits the part. Rachel Weisz, who is normally very good, is entirely miscast as the voice of Saphira, sounding far too gentle when James Earl Jones would have been a more fitting choice. Not that it was any better a film but DragonHeart did get their casting of Sean Connery right in their voicing of Draco.
But though it's very easy to pick faults in the film's plotting - Eragon has a habit of falling unconscious in battle only for the film to return to him after the fracas is over, the villains are defeated and Saphira, thought dead, has recovered without any explanation of what might have happened - and in the acting, direction and design, none of this matters so much in Eragon's ability to entertain a young audience, who might well be daunted by the scares in The Lord Of The Rings. As such, Eragon works well as a primer for more serious fare, much in the same way as The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain, simple though it was, was spoken of by its authors as a fine introduction to the more serious world of roleplaying. Eragon won't please anyone looking for another Tolkien-esque tale of halflings, dwarves and elves but it works well on an audience of primary school-aged children for whom the black riders were too frightening and the story of The Lord Of The Rings too longwinded. The hundred minutes of Eragon, complete with dragons, magic and warriors, was more their thing. Fitting, you might say, for a tale written by a seventeen-year-old and for those with fond memories of Beastmaster and the like but which is too slight a story for those in search of more adult fare.
20th Century Fox have done a very reasonable job with Eragon with both a choice of DD5.1 and DTS audio tracks. The latter option is so clearly the superior one that, if you should have the right decoding equipment, it would be foolish not to go with it. In all respects, the DTS track is better not only in being louder but in a much greater amount of detail, clearer use of the rear channels and subwoofer, better separation between channels and with a wider range, with it offering more that both the top and lower ends. Eragon does often sound very good and all credit to Fox for subtitling everything on the disc, not only the actual film but also all of the bonus material.
The picture is just as good, being crisp, detailed and sourced of an untouched print. The daylight scenes are excellent and there is a fine finish to the majority of the effects shots, which shouldn't come as a surprise on learning that director Stefen Fangmeier once worked for ILM but the nighttime scenes are a little too dark, which required a turning up of the brightness and, annoyingly on a plasma screen, the contrast. Things do get confusing later in the film when all of the action shifts to play out against dark browns and blacks when it becomes a lot more difficult to make out exactly what is happening but the DVD generally does a very good job with the material.
Audio Commentary: He can't half talk that Stefen Fangmeier who is alone for this commentary but never lets a moment pass without finding something to talk about, even if it is only the amount of melted candle wax on the set. Unfortunately, very little of what he says is particularly interesting, not least when it's as dull as saying that he enjoyed working with John Malkovich (all two days of it) or explaining what is happening in scenes when it should be obvious to all but the newly born what's going on. Things get no better the more confusing the film becomes with Fangmeier adding very little in Eragon's last twenty minutes when one would have wanted him to raise the quality of his comments but he does not, pointing things out in the background and praising the cast rather than commenting on the story.
Extended/Deleted Scenes (12m37s): These are available with an optional Director's Commentary but, much like what Stefen Fangmeier has to say, they are not terribly interesting. These scenes expand on those that are already in the film but more than half of what is included here feature from before the hatching of Saphira, meaning there is much of Eragon tilling the land, Eragon talking with the butcher and Eragon saying farewell to his cousin Roran (Chris Egan). There are some better scenes in the second half of this set, including the Varden testing Eragon's motives with the psychic power of The Twins (Ralph Brown) but these are in the minority.
Finally, on this first disc, there are two sets of Trailers, one for past releases (Ice Age, The Sound Of Music and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and the other for upcoming discs (Hogfather, Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer and, oddly, Eragon).
Fashioned in the manner of a map of the world in which Eragon takes place, which is clearly modelled on the maps in The Lord Of The Rings, this divides the bonus features into areas on the map without any explanation and for no good reason. Other than it no doubt felt like the right thing to do for a fantasy feature.
Carvahall: Inside The Inheritance Trilogy (51m23s): Christopher Paolini says that he began writing Eragon when he ran out of fantasy novels in his local library. Looking closely at him, he looks like the kind of young man who did indeed exhaust that section as well as, one suspects, a good many fantasy novels in the bookshelves that line his home. And that's coming from a man who's currently building up a complete collection of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks so I know of what I speak. Paolini appears here in the first part of this very complete making-of documentary, which begins with the writing of his book and its adaptation for the screen before going onto the realisation of the land of Alagaesia, the casting of the actors, the process of creating Saphira and Shruikan through CGI and, finally, a look at what is next in the series.
Daret - The Inhabitants of Alagaësia: These six short features allow director Stefen Fangmeier to profile the characters in the film, breaking them down into The Dragon Riders (3m43s), Saphira (5m15s), Arya (2m12s), Durza (1m53s), The Urgals (2m08s) and The Ra’zac (4m28s). We don't exactly hear very much about the characters as such, more their design, the types of weapons they carry, the make-up, CGI where it is relevant and the casting of the actors (again, where relevant).
The Spine: This is divided into two further sections, including a Conceptual Artwork Gallery (3m20s) and The Vision of Eragon: Arya's Ambush (4m37s), being the original animatic sequence that Stefen Fangmeier presented to 20th Century Fox before the production of Eragon was agreed. These are available with an optional audio commentary by Stefen Fangmeier, which explains the original design of the film, which did change during the actual production, and how the storyboards were used in the making of the film.
Teirm: As well as a Pronunciation Guide, which might prove useful were you ever to find yourself discussing the intricacies of the film with a friend, this section also includes six Original Storyboards from scenes featured in the film - Saphira Hatches, Raising The Ra’zac, Brom’s Tale, Battle In The Sky and the like - as well as four Lost Storyboards for scenes that do not feature in the film.
Hadarac Desert: This section includes only the one feature, Saphira’s Animation Guide (2m22s), which comes with a commentary from Stefen Fangmeier who explains how the character of the dragon was designed, animated and brought to the screen. What he shows us is what he describes as a bible for the animation of the character and though we don't actually see the process of animating Saphira, this explains much of what happened behind the scenes to bring Saphira to CG life.
Uru Baen: Once again, this includes only the one feature, Eldest (4m07s), which is an interview with Christopher Paolini in which he describes the second book in his trilogy (Eldest) and the as-yet-untitled third book in the series.
Farthen-Dur - The Secrets of Alagaësia (44m14s): This series of nineteen short features describe the visual effects in the film, which mixes CG animation with bluescreen work and offers a commentary by Visual Effects Supervisors Michael McAlister and John Van Vliet as they explain the process of bringing effects shots to the screen. The more interesting moments here are also the more complex, such as Dragon Battle, Baby Dragon and Summoning the Ra’zac but they are all amiable enough with McAlister and Van Vliet being understated and interesting, successfully avoiding being very technical about what must be a very technical part of filmmaking.
Beor Mountains: Or a pair of Trailers (1m36s, 2m22s). Which hardly needed its own area on the map.
All of these bonus features are, with much credit to 20th Century Fox, subtitled in English, Italian, German, Spanish, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish.
I'm not going to lie about Eragon as I enjoyed it a great deal but, then again, I'm happy eating crisps and drinking pop whilst watching the rubbish sequels to Beastmaster on a Saturday afternoon while a good many men of a similar age to myself favour pints and the football. There is truly a part of me that, as everything else matured, remained in a world of fantasy, twenty-sided dice and Allansia. Eragon is very slight fare, even more so than the simple Christian allegory of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe but it's diverting enough for an audience of sympathetic adults and more than a pleasant couple of hours for pre-teen children. There's much that's utter nonsense about it but then the same can be said for much that comes out of the more childish end of the fantasy genre, which, though clearly very expensively made, is very much a part of.