Greetings again from the darkness. Fantasy adventure films based on popular novels have certainly posted a track record of box office success … sometimes in record-setting style. However, not every entry into this genre need be a Goliath like the “Harry Potter” or “The Lord of the Rings” franchises. There is always room for simpler and still-creative movie-making like The NeverEnding Story or Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. Based on Joseph Delancey’s “The Wardstone Chronicles” (17 novels), this latest from Russian director Sergey Bodrov strives to be something special. Though it falls short of such a lofty goal, it still provides an entertaining onslaught to the senses.
A release date delayed by two years is rarely a good sign for a movie, though the official word blames it on legal issues between studio and distributor. No matter to us viewers, as what we care about is seeing something new and exciting. The steady stream of 3D special effects have their moments, but it’s impossible not to notice the out-of-focus issues that abound in post-production 3D. Still the swooping camera work through the mountains, Grand Canyon, bodies of water, and very cool looking temples and walled cities, provide the “epic” look a film like this must offer. An extremely heavy dose of CGI must have kept quite a few programmers employed, and the effects bounce between quite impressive and totally flat. Personally, I never get tired of seeing angry dragons … even if it happens 3 or 4 times in the same movie.
Let’s talk about Jeff Bridges as Master Gregory, the town spook (creature hunter). Evidently Mr Bridges only accepts roles these days that don’t require a haircut … or even a shower. But what’s with that voice? The first time Master Gregory opens his mouth, I immediately thought it sounded like his Rooster Cogburn in True Grit taking a big swig of bourbon and, before swallowing, delivering his lines of dialogue. This voice is a creative choice that crashes and burns. Dialogue is of little use if the audience can’t understand. As challenging as it was for me, it’s expected that most of the target market will be totally lost in Gregory’s exchanges with his apprentice or his sidekick or any of the wicked witches.
The obvious attempt to set up a franchise, or at least a sequel, suffers from another fatal error. Asking Ben Barnes (playing apprentice Tom Ward) to carry the torch is just not reasonable. His wooden approach in The Chronicles of Narnia reminded of Orlando Bloom (that’s not a compliment), and this outing just reinforces that original impression. The hulking sidekick Tusk is played by John DeSantis, and rather than stress his loyalty, we get a few lame jokes at his expense. Julianne Moore takes on the role of the powerful witch Mother Malkin, and though she gives it a shot, the role is simply underwritten and fizzles rather than sizzles. Other support work comes from Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair) as a young witch smitten with the apprentice, Olivia Williams as the mother-with-a-secret to the apprentice, while Jason Scott Lee and Djimon Hounsou each play talented, other worldly creatures.
It’s a bit surprising that the story isn’t more complex and the characters better developed given the screen writing team of Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond) and Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Locke, “Peaky Blinders“). We just never get a chance to understand the legacy of Master Gregory and his spurned girlfriend-witch Mother Malkin. We also are expected to take a huge leap of faith when the apprentice can’t accurately throw a knife in one scene, and shortly he is battling assassins, witches and other creatures. Perhaps the only explanation needed is that he is a “son of a witch”.
Fans of The Big Lebowski will get a kick out of seeing Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore reunited on screen, even if we wish their battles were fiercer. And while it’s nice to learn that four arms can really improve one’s swordplay, it’s a bit disappointing to miss out on the true power of a Blood Moon. Enjoy the visuals, duck from the dragons, and strain to understand the words coming out of the mouth of Master Gregory … there is some entertainment value here.