Reading as a source of love, mystery and terror - that's the laudable subject of the young-adult fantasy Inkheart, based on Cornelia Funke's engaging international best-seller about a man who can release characters from the page simply by reading aloud.
Cold, bland and gimmicky - that's how the movie has turned out.
On-screen the plot proves murky rather than intriguing. Brendan Fraser plays a guy named Mo, a loving father and regular fellow except for his profession. Mo is a "book doctor," an expert at repairing bindings, covers and pages. And he has a secret gift: He's a "Silvertongue," able to liberate storybook figures with the sound of his voice.
His 12-year-old daughter, Meggie (Eliza Hope Bennett), thinks they travel around Europe in search of jobs restoring antique books' luster. He's actually seeking a single rare book, Inkheart, an adventure set in a fantasy world resembling medieval places and times. He's also trying to stay out of the clutches of that book's villain, Capricorn (Andy Serkis), whom Mo inadvertently released from its chapters nine years before.
Because the movie fails to create a dense fantasy atmosphere - the kind you can swim in, the way you "sink into" a book - the problems start right there. In the age of Google, anyone from 5 to 90 might find it hard to believe that Mo can't locate a book by a contemporary author that he read in the previous decade.
David Lindsay-Abaire, the screenwriter, never figures out how to bring audiences inside the fantasy, and Iain Softley, the director, loses the capacity he had in his early films (Backbeat, The Wings of the Dove) to bring us inside the characters. By the time they explain that Capricorn has been buying every copy he can find of Inkheart, the audience's patience has worn out on several fronts.
The filmmakers squander Funke's most delicious twist: that people and creatures from Mo's world enter a book once he brings its fictional figures out. On the rule of thumb that a reviewer should not reveal more of a novel's plot than its book-flap, this review won't reveal the crucial exile into Inkheart. An audience's concern for this character rests on some woefully insufficient scenes.
Lindsay-Abaire lets the plot leak out in little dribbles of squid-ink. He stays so focused on the next plot turn, chase or escape that the overarching architecture comes to ruin. And Softley lets too many actors sweat for laughs, tears and thrills.
Fraser and Bennett share a lovely rapport. But Helen Mirren is shockingly off-key as the girl's book-enthralled Great-Aunt Elinor (she does earn a giggle when she spots a nostril-print on a glass display case). And Serkis brings far less expression to Capricorn than he did to his digitalized face and form as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. Paul Bettany conjures some touching confusion in the role of the scarred, scraggly Dustfinger, a juggler and fire-eater who longs to get back to the Dark Ages and his adored and adoring wife (Jennifer Connelly, that actor's real-life wife). By contrast, Rafi Gavron offers artificial exuberance in the role of Farid, an escapee from Arabian Nights.
Such recent documentary hits as Wordplay and Spellbound dwarf this film by demonstrating the power of language to generate drama and ignite comedy. To rouse the magic of literature, Softley mostly offers shots of Meggie as she hears books murmuring to her in banal aural montages. Only for one brief moment does everything click - when the author who created Dustfinger sees his character in the flesh and deems him just as he'd imagined - and that's mostly because Jim Broadbent, who plays the writer, brims over with delight.
The one undiluted virtue of The Reader, an adult movie also based on an international best-seller by a German author, is that it captures reading's all-encompassing allure. Inkheart isn't a smartly literary movie, and it isn't much of an adventure, either. Despite the escalating frenzy of the action, it remains emotionally becalmed.
I grew to wish the filmmakers had built more of the fantasy around Mo's day-to-day profession of saving wounded tomes. I might even have accepted those choruses of talking books if this were a different movie: The Book Whisperer, perhaps.
(New Line Cinema) Starring Brendan Fraser, Paul Bettany, Helen Mirren. Directed by Iain Softley. Rated PG for fantasy action, some scary moments. Time 106 minutes.
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