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Dragon drama disappoints, plucky pig pleases
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Dominic Scott Kay voices Wilbur (pig) and Julia Roberts voices Charlotte (spider) in Paramount Pictures’ production of “Charlotte’s Web.”
Heard the one about the farm boy who becomes a reluctant hero when uncontrollable events transform the world beneath his feet? Or the one about an impetuous youth who recklessly risks all to save a beautiful princess he’s never even met?

The film adaptation of “Eragon” plays out like a flawed forgery of a dozen other genre pieces, aggrandizing the worn-out conventions of the fantasy epic and beleaguering the audience with banal dialogue. It’s almost as if the story was written by a teenager.

Actually, it was – but that’s still not an excuse.

“Eragon” is the first in a series of adaptations of author Christopher Paolini’s bestselling fantasy novels. Paolini was 15 when he began writing the tale. There’s no denying that the book, no matter how imperfect, is a significant accomplishment as a first novel by a teenager.

The fantasy follows Eragon (Edward Speleers), a farm boy who is entrusted with a baby dragon named Saphira (voiced by Rachel Weisz). In this world, though, dragons are a rare thing, thanks to the evil king, Galbatorix (John Malkovich), and soon dark forces are dispatched to exterminate Saphira by killing Eragon. Former Dragon Rider Brom (Jeremy Irons) mentors the boy, saving his skin and helping him come to grips with his destiny.

Maybe it is Paolini’s inexperience that makes the story’s defects stand out so. The derivative plot, the purple prose and the underdeveloped characters of the book become overwhelmingly evident on the screen. Consider Eragon, a boy living an uncomplicated life detached from the world until tragic circumstances force him to become involved. Eragon is part Frodo (“Lord of the Rings”) and part Luke Skywalker (“Star Wars”).

The similarities are neither coincidental nor subtle. In one scene early in the movie, Eragon stares at the setting sun, a metaphor for the end of childhood and the impending journey into adulthood. The image perfectly mirrors a scene in “Star Wars: A New Hope” in which Skywalker watches the double sunset of Tatooine’s twin moons. Likewise, Brom is cut from the same cloth as Obi-Wan Kenobi and Gandolf.

Meanwhile, Malkovich broods on the periphery, sending his henchmen Durza (Robert Carlyle) to act on his behalf. Durza suffers from the same bad hair and rampant form of gingivitis as Grima Wormtongue in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

Despite the failings of Paolini’s novel, fans recognize the potential of the story and its author. Hollywood had an opportunity to polish this diamond in the rough; instead, they underscored all its imperfections. Making matters worse, the screenwriters condensed the story, omitting crucial details, altering segments of the story and revising the chronology of some events. Instead of shoring up weaknesses, moviemakers managed to further undermine the script.

Its marketers would have you believe that “Eragon” will appeal to all ages, but its target audience is most likely restricted to 9- to 12-year-olds with a budding interest in the genre who won’t mind the conspicuous cliches.

Competing for moviegoers’ dollars this weekend, the new G-rated live-action adaptation of E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web” boasts Dakota Fanning as Fern. Julia Roberts provides the voice of the helpful spider, Charlotte; Steve Buscemi is a perfect fit as the voice of Templeton the rat, and Oprah Winfrey voices the goose, Gussy. Dominic Scott Kay gives voice to Wilber the pig.

A fixture on children’s bookshelves for decades, the story centers on Fern’s attempt to save Wilbur from being slaughtered. Charlotte plays a pivotal role in trying to convince the family of Wilbur’s worth.

This adaptation of “Charlotte’s Web” illustrates that Hollywood can successfully transfer a beloved children’s story from the printed page to the screen without spoiling it, though neither the new film nor its 1973 animated predecessor should be thought of as a replacement for the book. The magic and charm of White’s original tale make the transition intact.

While “Eragon” will probably only draw a small segment of its intended audience, “Charlotte’s Web” – a children’s tale with generations of fans – will appeal to kids and adults alike.

Moviegoers can help support 4-H in Florida by buying tickets to “Charlotte’s Web” online. For every ticket purchased through www.f­ourhc­ounci­, Hollywood Movie Money will donate $1 to 4-H for the Florida 4-H Youth Development Program.
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