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When the definitive history of television is written, MTV’s inane new magical fantasy The Shannara Chronicles should rate a mention for its coining of the phrase “sweaty elf-boy hate.” I’m not certain if the expression appears in Terry Brooks’ The Elfstones of Shannara, a 1982 novel (one of many Brooks books exploring the postapocalyptic realm known as The Four Lands) on which this ten-episode series is based. I suspect not, since the patois seems very 2015 millennial, tailored to a cast that appear as if they were mainly hired for their Barbie and Ken doll good looks.
The recipient of said “sweaty elf-boy hate” is Amberle Elessedil (Poppy Drayton), a plucky elvish lass who enters a contest (the typically male-run “Gauntlet”) to become one of the seven “Chosen.” The Chosen are a group of youths tasked with guarding the Ellcrys, a magical tree that — so the myth goes — must be watered and cared for so as to hold a bunch of winged, sharp-toothed demons at bay. But no sooner has Amberle assumed her task than she has visions of the tree dying and the world bloodily torn apart by the ravenous minions of the evil Dagda Mor.
AIR DATE Jan 05, 2016
So begins a chain reaction that results, over the course of the first four episodes sent out for review, in a bunch of disparate characters coming together and embarking on a quest to save the world. In addition to Amberle, there’s a half-breed boy of destiny, Wil Ohmsford (Austin Butler), who with his beestung lips and Fabio Jr. blond mane seems more suited to strutting on a Paris catwalk than wielding a broadsword. Then there’s catty thief Eretria (Ivana Baquero), whose tough-as-nails exterior masks her ache to be better than her crooked origins have allowed.
Finally there’s Allanon (The Hobbit films’ Manu Bennett — best in show), a tattooed sorcerer who takes Will and Amberle under his wing after he awakes from a long hibernation. Tough, charismatic and commanding, Allanon is also a target for the ire of those who think his tales of predatory monsters, magical incantations and the impending end times are so much dross. “Damn your Druid tricks!” shouts one such unbeliever in a scene — not the only one — that plays like straight-faced parody. (Did Mel Brooks ghost direct?)
Fantasy stories tend to risk the ridiculous to achieve the sublime. But The Shannara Chronicles almost always lands on the wrong side of that divide. Though filmed entirely in New Zealand (Lord of the Rings country), the series rarely takes advantage of the picturesque locales, instead relying on bad CGI for flyover exteriors and confining much of the action to a number of overlit, chintzy sets — such as the Elven castle that looks like some unholy cross between a wellness spa and an IKEA showroom.
Then there are the performances, which, Bennett aside, tend toward the unclouded-by-thought school of acting. The three central characters are all blandly pretty faces who give continuously stilted line readings and never convincingly embody their respective mythic archetypes, so it’s up to the old pros to pick up the slack. James Remar makes for a splendid, second-banana antagonist as Eretria’s imposing father, and fantasy genre stalwart John Rhys-Davies brings a nice mix of pathos and cantankerousness to the aged Elven king Eventine Elessedil, whose world-weary dread at his empire’s impending doom is one of the few things in the series to ring true.
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