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The Colour Of Magic (2008)
Director: Vadim Jean

review by Jonathan McCalmont

At Christmas 2007, Sky TV decided to interrupt their important 24/7 coverage of The Simpsons' re-runs in order to screen some drama that was not only original but also commissioned by Sky. To those of you that have not experienced the horror that is Sky, this is as improbable an event as ESPN deciding to air a performance of The Marriage Of Figaro. This drama turned out to be an adaptation of Terry Pratchett's 20th Discworld novel Hogfather (1996), by the UK production company The Mob. A few months later and a second Discworld adaptation appeared from the same team. Combining the first two Discworld novels, The Colour Of Magic (1983) and The Light Fantastic (1986), The Colour Of Magic remains true to the precedent set by Hogfather in that it is lavishly produced and utterly pedestrian in its conception.

Rincewind (David Jason) is thrown out of Unseen University after spending 40 years as a student with no exam passes to his name. Whilst contemplating suicide, Rincewind encounters Twoflower (Sean Astin), the Disc's first tourist. Laden down with gold and accompanied by an intelligent piece of luggage, Twoflower is quickly pegged as a mark by the thoroughly unscrupulous denizens of Ankh-Morpork, including Rincewind. Having unburdened the tourist of a number of gold coins, Rincewind attempts to flee the city only to be dragged back in chains by the Patrician (Jeremy Irons) who informs him that this 'tourism' thing is something that should be encouraged and, as such, Rincewind is to protect Twoflower upon pain of death.

Left alone for a couple of hours, Twoflower outlines the concept of insurance to an innkeeper, prompting an outbreak of insurance fraud that sees the entire city consumed with flames. This prompts the pair to make a sharp exit and to set out exploring the Disc. This road-trip has them meeting dragons, trolls and barbarians. However, while this is going on, one of the more powerful magic books in the vaults of Unseen Library has become... agitated. The turtle (upon whose back the Disc is carried) has started heading towards a red star and the only thing that can prevent the world from being destroyed is if someone recites the spells in the agitated book. However, one of the spells has become lodged in Rincewind's head so, as well as dealing with trolls and barbarians, Rincewind has to deal with the new arch-chancellor of Unseen University who wants to kill him in order to free the trapped spell.

As the director Kevin Smith said of the Lord Of The Rings films, The Colour Of Magic is a story all about walking. Rincewind and Twoflower walk from Ankh-Morpork to the Wymberg and from there they travel to the edge of the disc and from there they travel to the Ramtop mountains and so on and so forth... the miles stack up and the result is that the film feels like a rather unstructured travelogue linking up different set pieces. This is due to the fact that, while the Discworld novels would later become much more ambitious creations with their own histories, themes and forms, their earlier instances are self-conscious parodies of works of epic fantasy.

Satire is a delicate creature. As with all responses, it relies for its effectiveness upon demonstrating understanding of the subject matter. A satire that fails to understand its target and instead rails against a straw man comes across as cheap and uncharitable (see TV panel games whose idea of attacking the Blair government was mocking John Prescott for being fat). Pratchett's early books worked as parodies because he was wise enough to stick quite closely to the source material and he recognised the fact that a lot of works of epic fantasies are travelogues linking up set pieces. The parodic nature of The Colour Of Magic can also be seen in the nature of the set pieces that reference Howard's Conan stories, Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos and McCaffrey's books about the dragonriders of Pern. However, in adapting the books for the screen, it would appear that much of the satire has been siphoned away.

Pratchett is arguably one of the most talented British comic authors since P.G. Wodehouse. His skill lies not only in satirising overused fantasy tropes but also his perfectly balanced sense of comic proportion that allows him to present information about the world that can be taken seriously and laughed at, at the same time. Indeed, Pratchett's skill as a comic stylist is what has allowed him to move away from producing parodies and towards producing works of fantasy that are not only funny but are also serious additions to the genre as a whole. Unfortunately, this lightness of touch does not easily translate to a visual medium. Vadim Jean plays The Colour Of Magic as a straight work of epic fantasy with the occasional bit of slapstick and verbal horseplay added in. The parodies are not presented as such meaning that rather than being a parody of Conan; Cohen is presented as an old man in a barbarian costume. Similarly, the visit of the Wyrmberg is not so much a tip of the hat to McCaffrey as a rather pointless excuse for including CGI footage of dragons that does little apart from highlighting the production's limited budget. Evidently aware that his script has failed to capture much of the humour of the books Jean tries to compensate by hugely expanding the scenes with the wizards but even these fall flat as they rely for their humour upon images of old men falling over and what appears to be a grinning pair of botoxed leather trousers made to resemble Tim Curry.

This decision to not even attempt to reproduce Pratchett's deconstruction of the fantasy genre results in The Colour Of Magic having the overriding aesthetic of a rather sub-optimal fantasy film aimed at kids. Something like, Eragon or a cash-strapped Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix (2007). It's something that passes the time pleasantly enough whilst never chasing from your mind the feeling that you are effectively watching something quite stupid and childish. Indeed, it is not until you weigh The Colour Of Magic against successful blends of deconstruction and adventure such as Stardust, or The Princess Bride (1987) that you really come to realise quite how much of a missed opportunity The Colour Of Magic really is. Strike the right balance between knowing cynicism and acceptance of fantasy's values and you will produce a work that is loved by millions. Try for spectacular fantasy and fail and the best you can hope for is to entertain a few people for a few hours.

Jean's failure to really grasp what makes The Colour Of Magic work is also evident in a lot of the casting. David Jason was an executive producer on both this and Hogfather and he has worked tirelessly over the years to secure an adaptation of Pratchett's work. However, I do not think that this should have entitled the man to cast himself as a character who is supposed to be taller, skinnier and quite substantially younger. This piece of casting is not helped by the fact that there is genuinely little for the actors to sink their teeth into. Jean attempts to play up Rincewind's manipulation of Twoflower but Rincewind's cynical worldliness was always supposed to play against Twoflower's na�ve enthusiasm. Suggesting that Twoflower might be hurt by this relationship is a bit like suggesting that Tom cries himself to sleep every night after being beaten up by Jerry. Nor does it help that Jason's best comic performances are clearly behind him. This is not the Jason of Dangermouse, let alone Open All Hours. Equally miscast is Sean Astin. A mediocre and distinctly humid screen presence at the best of times, Astin clearly owes his casting to his presence in the Lord Of The Rings films. It is sadly indicative of the level of creativity on the set of The Colour Of Magic that they would cast an American as a Japanese tourist and then refrain from reinventing the character as an equally archetypal American tourist. All they would have needed would have been to change Twoflower's hat into a baseball cap with an aircraft carrier on it and have him pad about Ankh-Morpork looking unimpressed whilst pointedly failing to understand public transport and pretending to be from Canada.

The Colour Of Magic is, at best, competent. As a TV mini-series it works quite nicely as even if you pay a subscription or a licence fee you never really feel that you're paying for TV. As such, if you were to sit down and find this on the box you'd probably be quite pleased as it does not feature people singing and dancing or making prank phone calls to retired comic actors. However, when presented as a DVD that you have to go out and spend money on, it starts to look like a decidedly more dubious prospect. I suggest the money you might have spent on this and use it instead to buy Stardust and The Princess Bride. They are both more worthy of your time than this callow adaptation.
colmagic1

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