It must be frustrating for movie studio executives. The Harry Potter books and subsequent movie series have set the bar for kiddie fantasy. That particular page-to-screen series has proved fantastically profitable and has no doubt stimulated the salivary glands of many a profit-seeking studio exec. It would seem, given the obvious evidence of Harry Potter, that young readers are eager for just about any young adult fantasy series to get snatched up and turned into a big-budget film series. So far, that has proved entirely false. With the epic failures of Eragon, The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, The Golden Compass, The Spiderwick Chronicles and many others, turning successful book series into successful film series obviously isn’t as easy as J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros. would have us believe. Heck, even Disney recently balked at producing a third Chronicles of Narnia film, citing diminishing profits and spiraling costs.
The fact that Inkheart has languished on studio shelves for more than a year and been released into theaters in January, just as its underaged target audience is going back to school, isn’t the best of signs. Still, there are a few glimmers of hope. The film is directed by Iain Softley, who has at least strived for a certain painterly charm in his wildly erratic résumé (Backbeat, Hackers, The Wings of the Dove, K-PAX, The Skeleton Key). Shot in some of Europe’s more remote locales (England’s Bourne Woods, the Italian Riviera), Inkheart certainly makes for a picturesque film. And on paper, the cast looks relatively impressive. (Among the Brit-heavy cast are Paul Bettany, Helen Mirren, Andy Serkis and Jim Broadbent.) But in practice, the film’s flaws become evident.
Brendan Fraser is the film’s main character, Mo Folchart, a timid bookbinder who travels Europe with his young daughter Meggie (Eliza Bennett, Nanny McPhee) looking for ancient tomes. Turns out Mo has been on a seven-year hunt for one particular book--the titular fantasy novel Inkheart. You see, Mo is actually a “Silvertongue,” born with the magical ability to make any book come to life. All he has to do is read it aloud and the characters will start popping off the pages and into the real world. This ends up being more of a curse than a blessing, as one of Mo’s first, accidental uses of his power resulted in the freeing of several villainous figures from Inkheart and the trapping of his beautiful wife Resa (Sienna Guillory) in the pages of the book. Since then, Mo’s been questing for another copy of the elusive novel, trying to figure out a way to rescue his long-lost wife and generally ignoring the fact that he’s responsible for the introduction of several fictional bad guys into the world.
Though it takes advantage of a few gorgeous European backdrops, Inkheart keeps the fantasy to a minimal (and cost-effective) level. We know almost nothing about the fantasy world of Inkheart, and the only glimpse we get of it comes in the form of some grubby but rather ordinary henchmen who have accompanied big baddie Capricorn (Serkis) from its pages. What? No fairies? No dragons? What a rip.
Fraser is charismatic enough on screen when he’s playing an oddball naïf (Encino Man, Airheads, George of the Jungle), but considerably less interesting when he’s called upon to be just an ordinary guy (The Mummy, Crash, Journey to the Center of the Earth). His co-stars are a well-qualified lot. Mirren seems to be having a particular hoot as the eccentric, book-loving aunt. Paul Bettany makes the most of his screen time as a morally ambiguous sneak thief who desperately wants to return to the world of Inkheart and is self-aware enough to rail against the writer who penned him as such a cowardly second-banana. But there’s a real vacuum at the center of the film, and it’s got Fraser’s name on it.
Funke’s imagination comes intermittently to life. The cinematography is beautiful. The acting is quite good overall. And there are enough fun sequences to entertain the younger crowd. But the stripped-down story feels too familiar--like a halfhearted mashup of 1984’s cult hit The NeverEnding Story and Adam Sandler’s recent special-effects romp Bedtime Stories. Plot holes abound. Why, for example, would a man who can pull anything out of any book run around scared of a few cheap medieval thugs? Why not have King Arthur, James Bond and a couple dozen Starship Troopers as bodyguards? Also, shouldn’t a film desperately trying to promote the magic of reading to children have some sort of moral other than: Books are dangerous things that can come to life and kill you? ... I’m just saying.