There's a fine line between charm and cheese in fantasy epics, and movies as silly and overwrought as "Seventh Son" only help to illustrate just how hard it is to hit the right tone when balancing action, romance, (attempted) wit, and the creation of the world.
For every "Princess Bride" or "Lord of the Rings," there are 10 "Jack the Giant Slayers," and as studios cram more and more CG spectacle into each final product, it seems that storytelling and character are the consistent casualties. "Seventh Son," directed by Sergei Bodrov , is no exception.
Based on Joseph Delaney's novel "The Spook's Apprentice" (the first in a series), "Seventh Son" tells the story of Master Gregory ( Jeff Bridges ), a skilled witch hunter (or, "spook") who must train a new apprentice after the evil witch Mother Malkin ( Julianne Moore ) escapes her imprisonment. He takes on Tom Ward ( Ben Barnes ) because Tom, you see, is the seventh son of the seventh son which makes him especially suited to the job of killing supernatural beings.
Bridges is as marble mouthed as ever and barely comprehensible as the hard-boiled spook. He's trying something here that is not quite working and actually makes it difficult to become emotionally invested in his relationship with the apprentice.
It's entirely possible that he and Barnes have some sharp exchanges and witty banter, but when you're not straining to decipher exactly what nonsense exposition was mumbled, they're dolling out such sitcom-level gems as "I'm starting to wish I was the sixth son."
Moore, who is riding high on her stellar, Oscar-nominated "Still Alice" performance, doesn't fare much better as the scorned, shape-shifting witch, who aims to unleash vengeance on humanity because of one betrayal. Mother Malkin teams up with her sister ( Antje Traue ) and "half witch" niece Alice ( Alicia Vikander ) to carry out her wishes
At first it seems like there might be an epic battle of the sexes brewing. For Master Gregory, death is the only option for a witch. You almost start to feel bad for Mother Malkin and her kind, wishing for a final showdown between the two warring forces. But "Seventh Son" swerves into something much more conventional and expected in that there's no real subversion happening at all: The craziest characters are the women with the broken hearts.
All of this could be forgiven if "Seventh Son" was at least entertaining. Nearly every piece of dialogue sounds like a parody of the genre and the attempt to alternate between humor and action falls flat on all fronts. As painstakingly designed and choreographed as the fight sequences are, they just never manage to excite or thrill and the actors couldn't seem more disconnected from one another.
The promise of seeing Bridges and Moore reunited on screen (they were in "The Big Lebowski" together) was another possible highlight, but their interactions are fleeting and full of plot-heavy ceremony.
When it finally hits theaters, Friday, it will have been just under two years since "Seventh Son" originally intended release, and perhaps it should have stayed on the shelf.
It's not evil that this film exists in the world. With three screenwriters, a formidable cast and two extra years to tinker, it's just more of a mystery as to how all the elements fail to coalesce into something enjoyable.
Far stranger fantasy movies have inexplicably worked their way into the culture's goodwill. "Seventh Son" tried to play it too safe, when it should have made the choice to either be camp or sincere.
"Seventh Son," a Universal Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "intense fantasy violence and action throughout, frightening images and brief strong language." Running time: 102 minutes. One star out of four.