"Inkheart" was a busy, crowded, hugely successful book to start with. Instead of stripping it for parts, the film version retains nearly all of author Cornelia Funke's story complications. It's a mixed bag and a serious load for a movie to carry without audibly grunting. Still, there are compensations: a fine ensemble, some gorgeous Italian Riviera locales, intermittent flashes of magic amid a more manufactured air of whimsy.
The idea of fictional characters coming to life and interacting with their creator is not new. It intrigues anew, however, if the story at hand has any appeal whatsoever. Kids enjoy having their planes of reality thrown out of whack nearly as much as adults do.
Brendan Fraser, the supreme square jaw of family-friendly entertainment, plays Mo Folchart, single father of 12-year-old Meggie (Eliza Hope Bennett). Interesting story behind that: Dad is a "Silvertongue," able to usher fictional characters out of their books and into the real world.
It works the other way too: Years earlier, Mo's wife disappeared into the pages of an obscure fantasy called "Inkheart," trading places with a street performer and fire-breather known as Dustfinger ( Paul Bettany, the albino bad 'un from "The Da Vinci Code"). A more malignant character, Capricorn, now stalks Mo and Meggie in the real world as well. He's preparing his Nazi stormtrooper-like minions, known as Black Jackets, for the arrival of the most fearsome of all "Inkheart" characters, The Shadow.
That's about 1/40th of what goes on in "Inkheart." The director is Iain Softley, whose Henry James adaptation "The Wings of the Dove" showed some real taste and an eye for evocative Italian streets and byways. Both are in evidence here, though for a story devoted to the power of imagination and the supremacy of the written word, "Inkheart" settles for a conventional action climax (in the book, but still), a protracted exercise that offers special effects supervisor Angus Bickerton something to beef up his highlights reel.
Playing a thoughtful, rather forlorn character, Bennett is excellent as Meggie. She rarely seems to be acting, even as characters from "1001 Arabian Nights" are falling out of the sky. (The movie tosses in a lot—a lot—of "Wizard of Oz" references, so for anyone broken up over the departure of the Chicago company of "Wicked," this is your bandage.) Helen Mirren has a high old mugging time as Meggie's great-aunt. She gives this dotty-spinster caricature an uncharacteristic 120 percent. This explains why Jim Broadbent, portraying the reclusive author of the troublemaking novel, is 20 percent more understated than usual.
Playwright and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire adapted Funke's book, though probably not enough. Known as "Tintenhertz" in the original German, "Inkheart" could've used a more judicious streamlining for the screen, along with a wittier brand of the fantastic. Instead, the film—which has a nice dark sheen to it, thanks to cinematographer Roger Pratt—juggles more and more, as if trying to keep pace with the circus skills of Dustfinger. It's entertaining enough, especially if you weigh your entertainment by the narrative pound. But I wonder how many kids (or adults) will fall headlong into its universe.
MPAA rating: PG (for fantasy adventure action, some scary moments and brief language).
Running time: 1:45.
Opening: Jan. 23.
Starring: Brendan Fraser (Mo); Paul Bettany (Dustfinger); Helen Mirren (Elinor); Jim Broadbent (Fenoglio); Eliza Hope Bennett (Meggie); Sienna Guillory (Resa); Andy Serkis (Capricorn).
Directed by: Iain Softley; written by David Lindsay-Abaire, based on the book by Cornelia Funke; photographed by Roger Pratt; edited by Martin Walsh; music by Javier Navarrete; production designed by John Beard; produced by Softley, Diana Pokorny and Funke. A New Line Cinema release.
'Inkheart' --2 1/2 stars
'Inkheart' stars Brendan Fraser, Eliza Hope Bennett, Helen Mirren
Rating: 2 1/2 stars (fair-good)
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