The next fantasy themed young adult adventure series coming down the pike is based on Cassandra Clare’s best selling series The Mortal Instruments. When New York City teenager Clary Fray (Lily Collins) learns that she descends from a line of warriors who protect our world from demons her world is changed forever. All too soon she gets swept up in a grand quest without even getting a chance to catch her breath as she begins running for her life. Quickly coming to grips with her family’s history, Clary learns she is a “Shadowhunter” – a line of guardians who have the blood of Angels. Their job is to safeguard the mortal world from demons who exist among us. Protected by her mother Jocelyn (Lena Headey) for her own good Clary has unknowingly been tasked with keeping a family secret hidden from the unseen demons in our world. She’s the only one who can find The Mortal Cup, one of three Mortal Instruments (The Sword and The Mirror being the other two) and continue to keep it safe.
Harald Zwart (director of the surprise hit that was The Karate Kid remake) takes the helm for this fantastical ride and yet it seems even he’s not sure what’s going on. The film wants to work yet its faults don’t lie in the cast, their acting or the visuals but on the source material itself. Invariably, as is the case with any adaption, key source material is going to get omitted/replaced in order to make this story more or less work on screen. No surprise that that doesn’t often work in a film’s favor. But the slightly bigger problem here, really the biggest problem, is that too much information passes by at any one time and even the fans have trouble keeping up or swallowing the creative changes in this adaptation.
It all starts well enough with mysterious symbols and characters, supernatural powers and unseen magical worlds. Add to that the mythology of the Shadowhunters, demons, etc. but then along come vampires, biker werewolves, shape-shifting immortals, warlocks and it gets to be just a bit much. So much so that with the mosh pit of creatures running up down and sideways when the infamous fallen Shadowhunter Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) returns from the planet on which he has been hiding, neither he or his world threateningly maniacal master plan (to break the barrier between our world and that of the Downworlders – the above mentioned werewolves, vampires, etc. who share our world with us) carry real weight or clarity. Granted it’s a genre-themed ride, one with lots of promise, but it needs to slow the pace. Not just to give the audience a chance to understand what’s going on but more importantly care about it. The stakes in the game seem to be systematically removed because the presence and appearance of each supernatural entity needs more substantial rationale; they can’t just show up or walk through the scenery.
Clary is a character kids can get behind and root for but the demons she faces become less threatening because we get less and less explanation. Collins plays the role with equal parts vulnerability and strength and there’s decent chemistry between her and Jace (Twilight‘s Jamie Campbell Bower). The cast is a rather young but competent mix of actors including Kevin Zegers (who sports a very impressive and convincingly highbrow British accent), even Robert Sheehan playing Simon, the best friend component of the love triangle. Now while the “love triangle” is a YA plot essential it’s not fair to compare this to Twilight.
What The Mortal Instruments has going for it really is the playful back and forth between the danger and the humor. Moreover, things that are comical are intended, and not the adverse reaction to corny or schmaltzy dialogue. It has its moments and can be a fun romp as everyone seems to know what kind of movie this is and enjoys the ride. A full on teenage adventure it’s the older more seasoned actors like Kevin Durand and Lena Headey taking a noticeable backseat. Yet while characters like Jared Harris and Jonathan Rhys Meyers bring credibility to the roles they don’t really fit their characters. Their attachment gives the film faux intellectualism (read: because they’re British!) but their contributions seem beneath their talents. It also doesn’t help that Meyers looks like a reject from Pirates of the Caribbean either.
The creatures our heroes face are a lot more dangerous than seen in most young adult properties. Not long after Clary starts being hunted by these demon from behind the barrier is she, and the audience actually, tormented by some truly horrifying John Carpenter-esqe creatures like the very first demonic canine she encounters. These elements attempt to elevate the film and keep this adventure interesting and, at times, moderately entertaining but they get lost in the shuffle of the plot and its pacing.
When the film tries to up the ante in the danger department things get messy and confusing. This is like Harry Potter meets Constantine with a good amount of Hellboy flair thrown in the mix. Sounds good on paper but misses the landing by overdoing things – there’s just too many elements that don’t seem to cohere. Plain and simple, The Mortal Instruments loses its momentum and focus at the halfway mark and never gets it back. There is some fun to be had, and there’s danger and allure in spurts but in the end this popular fantasy property succeeds in two things: sorely missing the mark and disappointing fans of the novel. One thing is certain, it’s more enjoyable than any of Stephenie Meyer’s works but still not nearly as engaging as J.K. Rowling’s.