- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 14, 2006

If “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy didn’t exist, we’d be comparing “Eragon” with 2000’s tepid “Dungeons & Dragons.”

Fantasy fans expect much more from the genre than a few random elves, thanks to director Peter Jackson’s masterwork. “Eragon” is dwarfed by such comparisons.

The film is based on the popular novels by youthful scribe Christopher Paolini, but the minds behind the film version appear handcuffed by his text. “Eragon” is epic in scope but downsized by its novice director, special-effects guru Stefen Fangmeier. A story of this magnitude needs to run at least two hours for us to learn, and appreciate, the new world presented before us.

Children will be dazzled by the dragon aeronautics and the frantic, if poorly choreographed, action. Their parents will be wishing for Gollum to pop up during the film’s soppier moments.

“Eragon” opens with an efficient prologue detailing how the lands of Alagaesia once prospered under the protection of the Dragon Riders, but the Riders squabbled among themselves, paving the way for their extinction. Wicked King Galbatorix (John Malkovich, making the most of his scant screen time) took over in their absence and rules the land with unchecked cruelty.

Enter young Eragon (Edward Speleers), a towheaded farm boy who happens upon a stone the size of a watermelon. That stone is actually a dragon’s egg, and soon Eragon learns he is destined to become the next Dragon Rider and fly atop the newly hatched Saphira (voiced by Rachel Weisz).

First he must learn the ways of the Dragon Rider from village elder Brom (Jeremy Irons). If Mr. Irons’ wizened character sounds like a medieval Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re not far off. Much of “Eragon” plays out as homage to the original “Star Wars.”

Eragon’s petulance gives Brom fits and puts them all in danger as they travel on horseback to defeat King Galbatorix. Why they don’t fly via Saphira is anyone’s guess. Maybe they find her ESP musings as torturous as the audience does.

It’s never a good idea to have a talking dragon, witness the bizarre experience of watching a dragon that sounds like Sean Connery in 1996’s “Dragonheart.” “Eragon” partially dodges this by having Saphira “speak” via telepathy, but Miss Weisz’s line readings can’t disguise a clunky screenplay attributed to four writers.

Some of Eragon’s enemies make worthy entries in the annals of screen villains. The Ra’zac, which serve both King Galbatorix and his magician Durza (Robert Carlyle), ooze with blackened larvae on their wretched forms. And Saphira is a singular triumph, particularly when she’s winging her way into battle.

The first “Eragon” book kicked off a trilogy, and the cinematic version ends with the promise of more to come.

In superior hands, a sequel might have enough magic to make us forget about Mr. Jackson’s “Rings” for a couple of hours.

**1/2

TITLE: “Eragon”

RATING: PG (Action sequences and mature themes)

CREDITS: Directed by Stefen Fangmeier. Written by Peter Buchman, Mark Rosenthal, Jesse Wigutow and Lawrence Konner based on the novel by Christopher Paolini.

RUNNING TIME: 99 minutes

WEB SITE: www.eragonmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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