Don't dumb it down: That is the best mantra for directors dealing with young adult fantasy fiction. Hurrah! The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is absolutely smart enough to qualify as quality entertainment for teens and twentysomethings.
In what will be the first instalment in a series that could potentially go to six -- like the book series will be when City of Heavenly Fire is published in May 2014 -- City of Bones is a teenaged girl's coming-of-age story. It is set against a supernatural Goth background rife with religious subtext, medieval icons and the ancient good vs. evil struggle. Yes, The Mortal Instruments is a literary and cinematic cousin to Harry Potter. But it also owns its own territory. And it is now already better on screen than some other young adult series, such as Percy Jackson and The Twilight Saga.
The girl at the centre of the City of Bones story is Lily Collins' empowered female protagonist Clarissa (Clary) Fray. She thinks she is an ordinary, if artistically gifted teen living with her single mom in New York City.
What Clary will soon discover is that there is a parallel world in her city. It is populated with demons, vampires, werewolves and what original Mortal Instruments author Cassandra Clare calls shadowhunters. They are humans with angelic qualities that drive them to seek out and destroy the demons. Plus it turns out that Clary is not ordinary after all. She is a shadowhunter. Discovering this, and acting upon it, is as painful for Clary as other rites-of-passage that teenagers endure.
The fact that this parallel world exists in secrecy is potent. The idea is not original for fantasy fiction, of course, but it adds a sense of discovery for Clary that the audience shares. City of Bones is her journey of discovery -- and ours.
I suspect fans of The Mortal Instruments novels will be thrilled with Collins. Wispy-thin, beautiful, vulnerable but really bright and more physical than she first looks, Collins is the perfect Clary. Even though (or perhaps because) she is a 24-year-old adult, Collins charts the course for her teenaged character to morph from naive to knowing with real expertise.
Collins' excellent performance is supported by a strong group of young actors, along with good veterans. The immediate circle includes Jamie Campbell Bower as shadowhunter Jace, Kevin Zegers as the sexually conflicted Alec, Jemima West as Alec's shadowhunting sister Isabelle and Robert Sheehan as Clary's geeky best friend and frustrated suitor Simon.
Mature actors include Lena Headey as Clary's mysterious mom, Jared Harris as Hodge, Jonathan Rhys Meyers as smoldering villain Valentine and Canadian character actor Kevin Durand as tough guy Pangborn.
Director Harald Zwart (who looked like a hack before scoring on City of Bones) manages to give his actors time and space to develop their characters without sacrificing the big production needs of the fantasy. The special effects are huge and impressive, although some of the fights are repetitive, as if to add more thrills than necessary. But the story still comes through all the madness. And it not dumbed down. City of Bones is not to be taken lightly.