Young author Christopher Paolini’s Eragon series has garnered heavy praise in the young adult literature world and shown enough reader interest to separate it from scores of other fantasy novels to make the silver screen jump. This first film is supposed to be the triumphant effects-laden springboard from which a new “coming of age” cinematic series will arise, not unlike J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter seven-part empire. And, if as successful as the hype leading into the theatrical debut, Eragon could have been of the most sought after Blu-ray Discs released yet. But Eragon failed to meet lofty expectations at the domestic box office (though performed admirably overseas) thanks in part to one scathing review after the next, leaving the Blu-ray Disc’s success falling almost squarely on the shoulder of audio and video-philes looking for the next quick eye-popping HD fix.
For inspiration in this first story, Paolini borrows heavily from George Lucas” Star Wars: A New Hope, a common “inspirational” storytelling tactic Lucas himself used to draw the framework of Star Wars from Flash Gordon and other classic adventure tales. For me and surely countless other adults, this creative mistake is the first of many in bringing the story of Eragon to mass audiences whom have already seen fire-breathing and talking dragons, and have certainly not forgotten the story of moisture farmer Luke Skywalker or need to be re-told it again so derivatively.
Luke’s counterpart is young Eragon, a farmer living with his uncle who has aspirations to become something greater but doesn’t quite know what that is. Instead of droids falling from the sky to turn his world upside down, Eragon stumbles upon a dragon’s egg who a young princess has stolen from an evil king, played unceremoniously by John Malkovich. The A New Hope parallels continue as Eragon’s older brother (think Biggs) leaves home to avoid being drafted into the king’s army, leaving Eragon’s poor uncle (think Owen) behind to die at the hand of Stormtrooper equivalents. Disheveled Eragon, now the proud owner and linked to a telepathic baby dragon Saphira (voiced by Rachel Weisz), learns the ways of once thought extinct dragon riders from an old crotchety Obi-Wan Kenobi-like man named Brom (Alan Rickman), who himself used to be a great rider and wizard before the dark times, before dragon riders were wiped out. With a captive princess, a world to save and a mentor who by the Star Wars narrative must sacrifice himself so his pupil can grow, Eragon heads off on a journey through varied lands and an ultimate battle with evil Sith-esque wizard Durza whose powers are far greater than Eragon’s own.
The overwhelming similarities to A New Hope are tough enough to stomach without being pulled down further into the depths of marginal entertainment by a woefully amateur script. For example, I haven’t read the novel, but it doesn’t take a superior intellect to question why Eragon and Brom travel by foot and horseback through the film’s entire second act while Saphira glides overhead after the dragon had already established the ability to carry passengers in her talons. If two passengers are too heavy, Saphira could have taken one a time. She flies at least a hundred times faster than they can move on land, so what’s the point besides an excuse for Eragon and Brom to partake in a couple minor scuffles and training sessions?
More than anything I feel bad for poor John Malkovich who was somehow roped into taking two steps back in his career. The seasoned actor typically steers towards challenging roles so I can only assume he either accepted the part to appease a younger relative or was honored to sit upon a gigantic throne and bark out heinous dialogue to pitiful minions. His foretold appearance in a sequel might be that film’s only saving grace should it ever see the light of day. Unless today’s generation of young adults is both unfamiliar with “Star Wars” and gullible for gaping plot holes, it shouldn’t.
While I failed to connect with Eragon on a cerebral level I can certainly appreciate the effects work and mostly stunning MPEG-2 1080p encode Fox has employed. The world of Eragon is one full of different textures and hues, from lush fields and forests to dark caves and castles, all of which this transfer handles with relative ease. Amazingly, some of the most believable and crisp shots include Saphira in broad daylight leaving no devices for animators to cleverly hide detail. For a dragon, Sephira is beautifully rendered with layers of scales, horns and a lengthy tail covered in an illustrious blue shade. Focus on her doesn’t distract from the fantastical environments she traverses, making the thought of a prequel during the dragon riders” heyday more appetizing than a sequel.
Fox continues their practice of including DTS-HD Master lossless audio which, to date, cannot be decoded, leaving us the core DTS 5.1 lossy mix as a consolation prize. Dragons are prime candidates for aggressive and spacious audio, and in this respect Eragon does not disappoint. Any scene involving Saphira in flight equates to 360 degrees of swirling surround use, and even when she’s not in flight, the surrounds are never quiet for long. Bass remains constant throughout whether through action, score, or a thunderous mix of both. Even a superb mix can’t quite make up for the lossy presentation compared to the incredible PCM soundtracks already available. At least not until our hardware can handle DTS-HD Master lossless audio.
An above-average audio/video presentation pushes Eragon into the rental category even if for a single viewing only. Prospective dragon fan buyers will want to keep in mind this Blu-ray Disc version contains only a handful of 1080p Trailers and none of the extras found on the two-disc standard DVD, yet will cost upwards of $30 to buy new thanks to an exorbitantly high $39.98 SRP. That’s a tough pill to swallow for a disc pressed with a derivative mediocre film and whose full audio potential is still under technology’s lock and key.
– Dan Bradley