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No Bones about this teen fantasy rip-off
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Lilly Collins as Clary, left, and Jared Harris as Hodge Starkweather appear in a scene from "The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. - photo by Rafy

‘The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones’

Starring: Lily Collins, Jamie Campbell Bower, Robert Sheehan, Kevin Zegers, Aidan Turner

Rated: PG-13, for intense sequences of fantasy violence and action, and some suggestive content

Runtime: 2 hours

Bottom line: A pretty but formulaic mess

If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if Harry Potter and Bella Swan hooked up, we now know. The offspring would be “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones.”

“City of Bones” is the first of six novels in the popular “The Mortal Instruments” book series. Sony and Screen Gems undoubtedly hope to replicate the success of the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises, and the novels seem to offer that potential.

However, the “City of Bones” film so blatantly steals from those properties and others, is so undeniably derivative and formulaic that it feels crass and exploitative.

The series is built around Clary Fray (Lily Collins), a teenager living in New York City who discovers she descends from humans with supernatural abilities and suddenly possesses magical powers herself.

Her mother (Lena Headey) disappears, Clary meets Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower), a hot bad boy who fights evil creatures, and before she knows it, Clary is hanging out with Shadowhunters, warriors who defend the world from demons, at a place called The Institute that exists right under humans’ unnoticing noses.

Clary doesn’t live under a staircase but it’s impossible to miss the similarities to Harry Potter. Shadowhunters even call humans Mundanes, which is embarrassingly similar to “Muggles.”

The borrowing from Twilight comes from the inevitable love triangle. Clary’s nerdy best friend Simon (Robert Sheehan) quietly pines for her. When Jace enters the picture, Clary is torn between loyal but boring Simon and passionate but dangerous Jace.

The movie also hints Simon might develop some supernatural abilities, too, so get your Team Simon or Team Jace shirts printed now.

It’s only half of the story, though, to say the movie borrows from Harry Potter and Twilight. The first act is incredibly similar to “Percy Jackson & the Lightning Thief.” Then an ancient rune alphabet and an angels versus demons theme emerge, which make the movie reminiscent of “The Da Vinci Code.” But the real laugher comes in the third act when the movie egregiously steals from “The Empire Strikes Back.”

The dominant emotion produced by the movie is sympathy for the cast, all of whom give it their all.

Collins and Bower are captivating screen presences and get a few fleeting chances to demonstrate solid comedic timing. Kevin Zegers (as Alec) and Jemima West (Isabelle) play characters who could have been rich, but they barely get to scratch the surface — because nothing in this movie delves beyond the superficial.

Teen audiences who have never seen a movie before or those who merely want some mindless eye candy might enjoy “City of Bones,” but it’s not likely anyone else will.

I can’t imagine fans of the novels will be satisfied by this adaptation. The dialogue is nauseatingly cheesy, the storytelling stumbles from one beat to another without development, and every plot turn is telegraphed.

The movie so obviously and so consistently hits all of the standard set pieces and devices of young adult fantasy movies that it could easily be turned into a parody of the genre.

Add some winks to the audience and more absurd humor, and this is a spoof on the level of “Not Another Teen Movie” or “Scary Movie.”

I assure you, I approached this movie prepared to like it. I enjoy good young adult fiction and movies. But “good” is the key word there. Too few are the movies that address teen lives with any kind of honesty and respect. Young audiences are sold a lot of rubbish that transforms their real, deeply felt anxieties into superficial, condescending fantasy yarns.

“City of Bones” is thus not only yet another promising 2013 release that falls flat, it’s also another callous attempt to bilk the teen audience.

Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.

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