Genre: Adventure, Family, Fantasy
Director: Iain Softley
Screenwriters: David Lindsay-Abaire
Starring: Brendan Fraser, Andy Serkis, Eliza Bennett
For a movie about the power of books and stories, it’s a bit ironic that Inkheart is itself so poorly thought through. The temptation is to give the film all the slack in the world because it’s so clearly aimed at kids — and by that standard it’s enough of a colorful spectacle to pass muster. But no: even kid fantasy has to be less jumbled, more exciting than this. Inkheart is a shrill and ugly mess.
The central conceit is wildly complicated but not coherently defined, raising all sorts of questions I was not supposed to ask, but couldn’t help myself. The idea is that there’s a class of people called Silvertongues, who have the capacity to bring stories to life merely by reading them out loud. (Apparently this talent can go undiscovered for decades, though it’s not clear how this can possibly be.)
So, for example, a Silvertongue can read a character “out” of a story and into the real world, which can be problematic if the character is, say, a villain bent on world domination. An even bigger problem is that when a character is read out of a story and into our world, a person from our world is for some reason automatically “read into” the story. (So at this point, does every existing copy of the story change to reflect the new addition? Since the film establishes that the person can then be read back out, I assume this has to be the case.)
In this way, an unassuming bookbuyer (Brendan Fraser) reads from an innocent fantasy book called “Inkheart,” and winds up with a bunch of pain-in-the-ass fictional characters on his hands, including a vagabond juggler named Dustfinger (Paul Bettany) and a dastardly villain named Capricorn (Andy Serkis, the nimble portrayer of Gollum and King Kong, appearing for once with no CGI adornments). Worse, his beloved wife vanishes into the world of “Inkheart,” and his only copy of the book gets destroyed. So he’s spent the last decade of his life looking for another copy, dragging along his none-the-wiser 12 year-old daughter (Eliza Hope Bennett). When he finally gets his paws on a copy, he finds that some “Inkheart” characters aren’t that eager to leave this nifty world of ours.
The movie explains all of this between stretches of breathless action, but none of it gels into a working magical universe. In addition to some of the above, you — and a bunch of shrewder pre-teens, I bet — may find yourself asking questions like: can Silvertongues bring to life anything that’s been written down? If so, what’s stopping them from simply writing what they want to happen and reading it out loud? The movie acknowledges this problem in the climax, which makes you wonder why Inkheart is not 10 minutes long.
I realize that it seems churlish to subject a kids’ film to this sort of interrogation. But kids are smarter than you think. The fact is that Inkheart doesn’t offer a coherent magical world to escape to. And because it doesn’t hold together, it seems phony and made up.
Inkheart rather cynically contrives an appropriate “fantasy” environment — a looming castle surrounded by a quaint old village — by having the villain hole up there and setting much of the film in the vicinity. Jim Broadbent shows up as the author of the novel within the film, who wants to forsake this world and escape to the one in his book — a rather depressing and desperate notion, though the film of course does not acknowledge this. Breaking and Entering‘s Rafi Gavron also appears as a random personage from some random Arabian Nights-like tale, speaking with an awful accent and making himself an early contender for 2009’s most irritating character.
I forgot to note one aspect of the film that’s actually somewhat of a joy: Hellen Mirren as snippy, rich British aunt. Mirren fans may want to check Inkheart out on principle. Everyone else should rent Wall-E again.