In the fashionably medieval-tinged fantasy adventure "Inkheart," contemporary people known as Silvertongues bring literary characters to life simply by reading aloud from the pages in which they exist. One of the drawbacks to this unasked-for abracadabra -- and there are several -- is that the transformation requires an exchange: For every fictional person or animal or thing that crosses into the here and now, an innocent flesh-and-blood bystander gets whooshed into the book. One such inadvertent spell cost a Silvertongue named Mortimer his wife, when their daughter was just an infant.
Which might explain the dour expression on Brendan Fraser's face. Or that might be the effect of a headache from trying to parse the internal logic of this story.
With his daughter in tow, Fraser's Mortimer, a.k.a. Mo, has spent a decade searching the antiquarian shops of Europe for a copy of the out-of-print fantasy novel "Inkheart" so that he might read his wife, Resa (Sienna Guillory), out of the book. For most of those years, a longhaired fire juggler named Dustfinger ( Paul Bettany) has been on Mo's heels, accompanied by his ferret and desperate to be read back into "Inkheart."
The convolutions of this tale involve much reading into and out of books of people and pets, and much talking about it. In the process, audiences -- kids especially -- are likely to read themselves out of the theater. And when grown-ups see Bettany's real-life spouse, Jennifer Connelly, in a cameo as Dustfinger's wife, urging him to "come home," they might wonder if she's coaxing him off the movie set.
To be fair, Bettany's performance is the film's most fully realized and affecting. But each of the main characters seems to be performing in a different feature. Alongside Bettany's homesick intensity is Fraser's glum derring-do, more miserable than motivated, and the campy antics of Andy Serkis' villain, Capricorn. Jim Broadbent, as the author of "Inkheart," and Helen Mirren, as an eccentric aunt in the manner of turbaned interesting women of a certain age, ham it up for laughs.
As Mo's daughter, Meggie, who discovers that she has inherited the powers of a Silvertongue, Eliza Hope Bennett is believable and unaffected.
With no unifying sensibility, the magic thuds more often than it soars. The dark whimsy of the source material, Cornelia Funke's 2004 bestseller, is honored, to a point, in screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire's adaptation, but that territory between the tangible and the imaginary never attains true vitality.
Director Iain Softley ("The Wings of the Dove," "K-PAX") makes good use of autumnal locations in the Liguria region of Italy and manages a few lyrical touches, but the labored back and forth of capture and escape, discovery and return seldom rises above the generic.
"Inkheart" is a valentine to books mainly by negative example -- the leaps of imagination it doesn't achieve.