Have you ever read a book and wished you could enter the world on the page? Maybe reflected on how cool it would be to extract something from the story and bring it into the real world. Who wouldn’t want to have Harry Potter’s Firebolt broomstick or their very own Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory? You’d think a movie centered on that very premise would be, at the very least, exciting to watch. In the case of Inkheart, it’s a dismal disappointment. If Cornelia Funke’s acclaimed children’s novel is as good as a New York Times best seller should be then Funke (who had a hand in producing the project) ought to be disappointed by how unsuccessfully her work was transferred to the screen.
One night while reading aloud to his infant daughter from the fairytale “Inkheart”, Mo Folchart (Brendan Fraser) is suddenly accosted by the villain from the story, Capricorn (Andy Serkis). Capricorn magically appears from out of the book, bringing with him two other characters: a knife-happy henchman loyal to Capricorn and one of the story’s tragic heroes, a fire juggler named Dustfinger (Paul Bettany). It turns out Mo is a silver tongue, a person with a rare gift who causes things from books to cross over into the real world simply by reading about them aloud.
There’s only one small catch: any time a silver tongue reads someone into the real world, someone from the real world is sent into the book. When Mo unwittingly brings the three characters into being, his wife Resa (Sienna Guillory) is transported into “Inkheart”. Just ignore the fact that three come out and only one goes in – that’s only the first of many practical problems that pepper the movie. Capricorn destroys Mo’s copy of the book and sets out to conquer this new land leaving Mo to raise daughter Meggie (Eliza Bennett) alone, all the while searching for another copy of “Inkheart” so that he can bring his beloved wife back.
If you’re willing to completely check your brain at the theater door, you might stand a chance of enjoying the wildly wandering plotline. The premise that someone could have the gift of the silver tongue isn’t the problem. What’s confusing is that the nature of the power seems to conveniently change on a whim. Sometimes the rules apply, sometimes they don’t, with no rhyme or reason as to how or why.
Complicating matters are the number of silver tongues that crop up. Never mind that it’s supposed to be a rare gift: they seem to be in steady supply. Mo has the gift, as does Meggie who inherited the power from dear dad, a fact she predictably discovers in the course of the film. To top it off, a third silver tongue is found. This one works for Capricorn and helps him to build an army by bringing in all manner of baddies from “The Wizard of Oz”’s flying monkeys to the mythological minotaur. With three silver tongues running around reading aloud, stuff is flying in and out of books so fast there’s no point trying to keep up.
By the end of the movie matters are so far out of control that Meggie starts scribbling words on her arm, reading them aloud, and crafting the mother of all ridiculously convenient endings. It makes for some exciting special effects opportunities but a very unsatisfying climax to an already rough storytelling session. Whether screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire was lazy or just didn’t care, the result is a convoluted mess sure to damage the enjoyment level for anyone truly paying attention.
Brendan Frasier, who traditionally excels in the role of the adventure hero, has completely lost his spark this time around. Usually the master of making bad writing work, he stumbles through Inkheart’s particularly limp script, relying on his co-stars to carry the action along. Some of them are up to the task; others are just as lost as he is.
Andy Serkis and Jim Broadbent (who plays “Inkheart”’s offbeat author), who are blessed to play the only two characters with any decent dialogue, soak up every word and send back performances that help save the movie from being a total disaster. Paul Bettany’s bacon is saved by the virtue that his fire juggling character is just plain cool, but he too faces poorly written lines and a sidekick ferret that routinely upstages him. Poor Helen Mirren plays Mo’s snobby bookworm aunt, a character so unnecessary you could remove her from the film and not miss her for a second. Mirren is completely wasted on the role, shamelessly reduced to being extraneous comic relief that isn’t all that funny.
It’s ironic that a movie intended to inspire children to read and write would itself be so poorly written. Despite a solid cast, impressive production values and an intriguing fantasy concept, Inkheart ends up as cinematic mediocrity. Worst of all is the knowledge that with a better script and a little polish it could have been an extraordinary adventure.