Review: MTV’s ‘Shannara Chronicles’ whips up plenty of fun millennial magic
MTV takes a big, bold step into youth-friendly post-apocalyptic supernatural medieval fantasy Tuesday with the premiere of “The Shannara Chronicles,” adapted from the books of Terry Brooks.
The series begins with Brooks’ second book, “The Elfstones of Shannara,” reportedly because, unlike its predecessor, it includes female characters and a love story — you’ve got to have a love story. It’s set in a far future, when the magic that ruled the world before the age of men is making a tentative, not wholly wholesome comeback. There are elves (the ears), gnomes, trolls, a Druid. (There’s only one left, his name is Allanon, and he’s played by Manu Bennett, from “Spartacus.”) A horde of demons, long imprisoned in a place called the Forbidding and kept in check by a magical tree called the Ellcrys, are about to get back in the game as the tree falls sick.
Into this juncture in future history step our principles. In line with network targets — MTV might as well stand for Millennial TV until the next named generation comes along — most are young: Amberle (Poppy Brayer), a tradition-bucking elf princess who will have to deliver a magical seed to a magical place; the half-elf Wil (Austin Butler), whose ears may be small — a running joke — but in whom the force is strong; Eretria (Ivana Baquero), a thief with skills; and the aforementioned Allanon, a sort of warrior sage, their sometime protector, older but not so old as to alienate the target demo.
The younger characters all speak modern American, in a way that feels refreshing within the context: “I’m definitely sensing a lot of sweaty elf boy hate.” And as Wil, Butler, whose resume includes “Zoey 101” and “The Carrie Diaries,” has an easy quality that strikes me as Southern California beach town; all that’s missing are the puka shells.
“Why don’t you just call it a book of magic?” Wil asks Allanon of the mystical Codex of Paranor. “Is it a Druid requirement that everything has to sound so mysterious?”
By his own admission, Brooks was influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien, and his saga as realized here also draws from other sources that were influenced by Tolkien; generations of books and movies and video games have made this territory, for all its fantastic properties, as familiar as a trip to Home Depot with a stop on the way for coffee. Scenes and characters have been invented, reordered and elaborated upon, sometimes just for good drama — the blindfolded elf race that opens the series is a wholly new invention — but in some ways to even more closely call to mind other heroes and heroines and heroic quests.
Wil is a Luke Skywalker type, Amberle is a kind of Frodo mixed with Arwen Undómiel. Allanon is very much an Aragorn; Eretria, the Han Solo of the piece. And chief demon Dagda Mor, waiting for his batteries to fully recharge before visiting himself fatally upon the Four Lands, has a touch of Sauron, but also of He Who Cannot Be Named, who is named Voldemort.
Adapted by “Smallville” creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (who also have AMC’s martial arts fantasy “Into the Badlands” in production), the series is sassier than the book. (And than “Badlands,” come to think of it.) Brooks’ characters “faintly smile” from time to time, but none ever really gets off a joke. I can’t speak to his later writing, of which there is much, with many millions of copies sold, but “Elfstones of Shannara” is a pretty straight-faced, even solemn read. Moving pictures require something different; messianic folderol is best served there with a little sex, and a little seltzer.
That has been provided.
‘The Shannara Chronicles’
Where: MTV and TV Land
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-14-SV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for sex and violence)
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