STARRING: Brendan Fraser, Paul Bettany, Jim Broadbent, Helen Mirren, Andy Serkis, Rafi Gavron, Sienna Guillory

2008, 106 Minutes, Directed by: Iain Softley

Rightly or wrongly, Inkheart feels very much like a casualty of New Line Pictures' recent implosion. It holds the sense of something much grander at its core: a big-budget tent pole in the vein of Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings. Somewhere along the line, ambitions got scaled back . . . which would be fine if it didn't entail a subsequent drop in storytelling quality as well. And for a movie as in love with storytelling as this one, that proves fatal.

Most of the funding seems to have gone into the cast, who provide Inkheart with many of its best moments. Sadly, star Brendan Fraser makes only minimal contributions, which is a shock considering how well he suits material such as this. He plays Mo, the evasive father of a little girl named Meggie (Eliza Hope Bennett). The two travel all over Europe as a part of his job repairing rare books, which serves as cover for the dark secret he carries with him. The movie refers to him as a "silvertongue," which means that he can bring literary characters to life simply by reading a few passages from the pertinent book. But for everything he pulls out of the page, something (or someone) gets sucked in as a replacement. He found this out the hard way when his wife (Sienna Guillory) disappeared into a third-rate adventure novel named Inkheart and the book's black-hearted villain Capricorn (Andy Serkis) popped into our world. Now that same villain hunts him to the ends of the earth, determined to use his silvertongue powers for selfish gain.

Not only is the concept truly marvelous (rising from Woody Allen's short story "The Kugelmass Episode" as much as from Cornelia Funke's source novel), but the visual potential it represents could send the most jaded moviegoer into fits of glee. Inkheart's best moments give tantalizing glimpses of the possibilities: a menagerie containing Crete's minotaur, Oz's winged monkeys, and the ticking crocodile from Peter Pan; a rogue fire juggler (Paul Bettany in one of his better roles) tossed out of the novel and now hounding Mo to send him back; and the book's original author (Jim Broadbent) so overjoyed at seeing his creations brought to life that it doesn't bother him when one of them holds a knife to his throat. Director Iain Softley holds such notions delicately in his hands, brimming with the chance to achieve something truly wondrous with them.

"The story itself feels dreadfully out of whack . . ."

Unfortunately, it all falls apart long before it can get there. The problems are small but numerous, starting with the film's curiously dull look. Though shot in the Italian Alps and set mainly in ancient castles and picturesque villages, the film stock gives it all a musty, mundane look unbecoming for such fanciful leaps. The editing fails to find a proper rhythm, patching scenes together in a coherent yet shambling manner that struggles to hit its stride. Special effects are minimal - and indeed, the film could conceivably work well without them - but when they do appear, they don't have the first clue what they should be doing. Indeed, the story itself feels dreadfully out of whack, with superfluous threads spreading in all directions and wonderful figures such as Meggie's batty great aunt Elinor (Helen Mirren) squandered from the get-go.

The worst part is that much of Inkheart screams out to be liked. Though clunky around the edges, the central idea holds true from beginning to end. Who wouldn't want to toss a group of disparate literary figures together in order to save the day? What author hasn't realized that his characters don't always do what he wants them to, and how much fun could we have seeing one of them tell him so face to face? Early scenes speak passionately of the magic in books and the way good storytellers can transport their readers to another world. Inkheart wants to convey that love so badly - and the talents involved clearly share that desire with every fiber of their being - that its ultimate failure crushes the spirit in ways a more cynical effort never could. Its countless missteps earn nothing but scorn even as its wonderful intentions make us ashamed to voice them. But fairy tales need more of a fighting chance if they're ever going to work, and Inkheart ultimately proves incapable of providing one.

- Rob Vaux



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