Today, I’m going to take a look at a 2006 movie that desperately wanted to kick-start the next big blockbuster franchise: Eragon.
The plot of Eragon is summarized on IMDb as follows:
In his homeland of Alagaesia, a farm boy happens upon a dragon’s egg — a discovery that leads him on a predestined journey where he realizes he’s the one person who can defend his home against an evil king.
The screenplay for Eragon was ultimately credited to Peter Buchman, whose other credits include Jurassic Park III and the two-part 2008 biopic on life of Che Guevara. However, this was also settled after some significant disagreements on the credits were brought to the Writer’s Guild of America, so other parties were clearly involved with the writing.
The source material for Eragon was the first installment of Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle novel series, which is also entitled Eragon. The book was initially self-published in 2002, but gained a wider following after its republishing in 2003. It wound up being a best-selling children’s franchise for years, spawning three successful sequels.
Eragon was directed by Stefen Fangmeier, a successful visual effects worker who has contributed to Game of Thrones, Twister, Jurassic Park, The Mask, Small Soldiers, and Galaxy Quest, among others. However, this was his first (and so far, only) directorial project.
The cast for the film includes Jeremy Irons (Dungeons & Dragons, The Lion King, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), John Malkovich (Being John Malkovich, Burn After Reading, Rounders), Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting), Sienna Guillory (Luther, High-Rise), and Ed Speleers (Downton Abbey).
The film ultimately required the work of three editors, likely due to studio-mandated re-cuts. These credited editors were Chris Lebenzon (Radio, Big Fish, xXx, Con Air), Masahiro Hirakubo (Trainspotting, The Beach, The White Helmets), and Roger Barton (World War Z, Bad Boys 2, Speed Racer, Gone In Sixty Seconds).
The music for Eragon was composed by Patrick Doyle, who also provided scores for Donnie Brasco, Thor, Brave, and Carlito’s Way, among others.
Apparently, both Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart were considered for the role that ultimately went to Jeremy Irons. However, both men were unavailable for the same reason: the filming of X-Men: The Last Stand.
Interestingly, Eragon was the last major Hollywood film to get a VHS home release, in 2007. This followed decades of the format’s dominance, dating back to the late 1970s.
Eragon was made on a production budget of $100 million, on which it brought in a total lifetime theatrical gross of $249.5 million, making a nice profit. However, it wasn’t nearly as successful as hoped, not was it received well by fans or critics. Thus, the sequels never came to fruition.
Speaking of the film’s reception, Eragon currently holds an IMDb user rating of 5.1/10, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 16% from critics and 46% from audiences. All of these scores are pretty far from positive, and film is remembered widely as a failure as a result.
The first thing that has to be said about Eragon is that the effects haven’t aged well. Even if the effects looked spectacular at the time, rapid technology changes and developments have been particularly cruel to CGI-heavy movies from the mid-2000s. Looking back with an eye accustomed to current films, going back a few years draws some really unfavorable comparisons to more developed works. However, I seem to remember seeing Eragon when it was released, and not being impressed by the dragon. It might look fantastic in an animated setting, but it doesn’t seem to interact with the tangible world like it should, which stands out dramatically.
As far as the performances go, the thing that I most noticed was how obviously checked out John Malkovich is throughout the run time. I suspect that his part wrapped with only a few days of shooting, and he clearly was not into the zone for it. While his dialogue is certainly terrible, the level of dispassion in his deliveries is hard to match if you were trying. On the other end of the spectrum, Jeremy Irons is pretty solid: he is a guy who tends to put in good performances no matter what, and he manages to weave his way around some shoddy writing. The rest of the cast is pretty forgettable: particularly the lead, who is the living embodiment of white bread.
One of the biggest criticisms that has been levied at the source material for Eragon is how apparently derivative it is from other science fiction and fantasy works. While it might be easy to attribute this to the author simply following the patterns of the monomyth, I think this goes far beyond following the broad strokes of the Hero’s journey. Only having the reference of the film to go by, I was struck by how many story beats and sequences reminded me of Star Wars, one of the most popular and recognizable adherents to the monomyth. Typically, the Hero’s journey is a loose blueprint, which you only notice if you are specifically looking for it. Honestly, you shouldn’t notice it if the writing is well done: you want to be in a position of familiarity without feeling like you are going through the motions of a routine. It is hard to be invested in a story that plays out like a paint by numbers puzzle. However, that is exactly what Eragon is: a story that reeks of unwelcome familiarity, like a greasy spoon meal that violently revolts in the digestive tract.
One of the biggest issues that looms over Eragon like a fog is the then-recency of the highly successful and well-received Lord of the Rings trilogy, helmed by Peter Jackson. The comparison is highly unfavorable on pretty much every level: production design, performances, makeup, visual effects, writing, cinematography, music, etc. Just skimming through contemporaneous critical reviews, it is clear that Lord of the Rings was still heavily entrenched in the minds of the public. Even if Eragon had been good, the comparison was inevitably going to be drawn, and there was no way that the judgement was going to be in Eragon‘s favor. I’m sure the producers had this notion of being able to find a sweet spot between Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings, but that was clearly short-sighted, and put way too much pressure on the back of Eragon.
Another big issue I have with the film is how many plot threads and characters are being balanced throughout the story. Even though a lot of things were changed and cut through the process of the adaptation (to the immense ire of the book’s fan base), I still think that there is way too much happening. There are a number of characters that I don’t even recall being named, like the leader of the resistance group. Introductions are blown through in a split second, which makes caring about any of the characters really difficult.
Overall, I think that Eragon was built on excessively lofty expectations and a foundation of sand. There’s nothing particularly worth recommending about the movie: as much as I love Jeremy Irons, he isn’t enough of a force to save it. The producers were clearly blinded by the profit potential of a youth fantasy franchise with familiar elements of both Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, and didn’t give consideration to meeting the quality of those films. On top of that, I’m thinking that the screenplay could have used a lot more work, and the whole film could almost certainly have benefited from the oversight of a seasoned director rather than a first-timer.