"Eragon" is a vocabulary movie, which means the first 10 minutes are filled with lots of made-up words that have to be explained to the audience. Not sure where Alagaesia is? What's an urgal? Are the Varden bad guys, or are they just hairstylists who specialize in affixing blond highlights to the superbly mussed locks of dragon-riding farmboys suddenly thrust into the role of world savior?
It helps immensely, of course, if you've read the book and are familiar with the fantasy world created by Christopher Paolini. (I'm a novice.) At the tender age of 17, Paolini crafted Alagaesia -- a kingdom filled with humans, sorcerers, monsters and dragons -- and published it as "Eragon," a surprise best-selling novel.
Paying homage to such alternate-world masters as Ursula K. LeGuin ("The Wizard of Earthsea") and J.R.R. Tolkien ("The Lord of the Rings"), Paolini didn't exactly revolutionize the genre, but he did put his own cheerful gloss on it. The author imagined the standard, preindustrial agrarian society with a medieval flair: lots of thatched-roof cottages, rough-hewn cloaks, swords, not a dry cleaner in sight, etc. But he added an appealing twist by creating a world in which dragons form deep emotional bonds with their riders.
If you're lucky enough to be paired up with a dragon, it's a special relationship -- sort of like having your own personal genie. You're bound together for life. You don't need to master the dragon or negotiate with it. You get to summon it whenever you'd like and boss it around, no questions asked. And if you die, the dragon dies, too, which means you have a pretty nifty bodyguard.
If this sounds like not just a fantasy, but a teenage boy's fantasy, you're right. Instead of being required to prove yourself worthy of interacting with the adult world -- by showing responsibility or courage, or at least working your way up the ladder by doing grunt jobs first -- getting the nod from a dragon means you get to play with the big boys from the start. Aging mentor Brom (an appropriately grizzled Jeremy Irons, looking only slightly peeved that he didn't get cast in "Lord of the Rings"), tells our hero: "You must try to understand, it's your life that's important."
No wonder this film is going to be so popular with boys ages 10-14. Its appeal to audiences older and younger than that is limited; it doesn't have the wit or complexity of "The Lord of the Rings" for adults, and it's too scary (and dawdling) for little ones.
In "Eragon," the title character (an appealing Edward Speleers) figures he's destined to life on the farm. But these are ominous times. The evil King Galbatorix (John Malkovich doing the bored-villain thing) rules with an iron hand. When word comes that a dragon egg is about to hatch -- the great winged creatures were wiped out in a coup -- Galbatorix orders his chief henchman, Durza (Robert Carlyle), to destroy it.
That's where Eragon gets entangled. The dragon, born a chirpy little thing, has chosen him. Together they must find the Varden (they're rebels, not hairstylists) and fight the Urgals (the brutish troops who serve the king).
"Eragon" is larded with familiar motifs: the orphaned hero, the tragic loss of a father figure, the captured princess, the mismatched-buddy routine. (The dragon, Saphira, is voiced by Rachel Weisz, and she seems oddly miscast, sounding more like Glenn Close as Cruella De Vil than as a strong female figure. Maybe it should have been Sandra Bernhard.) Director Stefen Fangmeier puts together these motifs painstakingly by the numbers, and if many of the elements are boringly derivative (Malkovich's creepy and menacing castle looks like it was picked up at a "Lord of the Rings" clearance sale), at least the flying sequences don't fall flat.
Like any self-respecting fantasy franchise, this one comes in installments, and the film blatantly sets itself up for a sequel. The studio had better hurry on this one, however. Kids who enjoy "Eragon" are going to outgrow it as fast as a dragon making an emergency landing.
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