There are certain projects that, forgive the pun, look good on paper but never quite rise to the heights of magic one would expect from their source material. Such a beast is Inkheart, I guess a film that might be considered one of a peculiar set of films that might include such disparate movies as Jumanji, Zathura, Lost in Austen and even Stranger than Fiction. Inkheart's conceit is that there are certain exceptionally gifted readers, called "silvertongues," whose mere recitations of classic stories bring elements, from characters to props, as it were, from those stories into our world. The flip side is that for every story character who pops into 21st century "reality," someone from our side plops into their story realm.
Specifically Inkheart concerns one particular silvertongue, Mortimer Folchart (Brendan Fraser) who, not realizing his special skill, brings a slew of characters from a fantasy novel called "Inkheart" into our world while exiling his young wife to the medieval setting of the book. After a brief prelude, the film picks up about a decade after the switch, with Folchart desperately searching for another copy of "Inkheart" to try to "read" his wife out of her literary state, so to speak. Unfortunately Mo is also being chased by a number of characters from the book, all with his adolescent daughter in tow.
What should have been a fun and fantastic adventure sputters along rather fitfully in this not very artful adaptation of Cornelia Funke's beloved novel, the first in her Inkheart trilogy. Part of this may be due to the film's rather haphazard story development, which seems to have left several salient episodes on the cutting room floor. What, for example, ever happened to the original copy of "Inkheart" Mo was reading when the initial switch took place? More importantly, where is there any mention of "Inkheart"'s author Fenoglio (Jim Broadbent) wanting to escape into his own work of fiction, something that becomes a point in the denouement?
Probably the biggest element dragging what should be a flight of fancy down into the dregs of constant glances at your watch to see how much more time in the film is left, is the completely annoying flip flops of several major characters, flip flops which tend to negate the previous 15 minutes, only to then be negated again another quarter of an hour in. Especially egregious in this regard is the character Dustfinger (Paul Bettany), the waffling good guy (or is he?) who was "read out" of "Inkheart" and is as desperate to return to his novelistic home as Mo is to get his wife out of it. Dustfinger has so many head scratching turns of heart that some viewers may be tempted to slam the book shut and/or hit the "off" button of the remote, if only to prevent any further plot machinations which never seem to lead anywhere.
Inkheart did manage to attract some fantastic actors to its production, including the redoubtable Helen Mirren as Mo's aunt. Mirren is fun, if underutilized, and has one very funny scene on a motor scooter that makes her look like a jet-set Wicked Witch of the West (especially appropriate as The Wizard of Oz plays a recurring role in the film). Also on hand is Andy Serkis, the man who put motion control "acting" on the map with his impeccable portrayal of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films. Serkis is quite menacing here, but never really rises to the level of sheer evil that his role seems to require. He's almost a cartoon character pretending to be a bad guy. If Mirren is underutilized, it's hard to think of an apt adjective to describe Jennifer Connelly, who is given maybe (and I think I'm probably being generous here) about 15-20 seconds of screen time as Dustfinger's wife. I'm not sure who owed whom a favor in this regard, but it seems a rather senseless waste of Connelly's rather pronounced talents.
The film does have a nicely evocative production design, though I was a bit surprised that the fantasy element wasn't more lavishly displayed. There is one wonderfully rendered special effect toward the climax of the film, when Mo's daughter Meggie (Eliza Bennett in an appealing, if at times too dewy eyed, performance), who it turns out is yet another silvertongue, summons the real bad guy from "Inkheart," a supernatural phenomenon called The Shadow. The film finally rises to some spectacular visual impressiveness in this sequence, something that strangely eludes it for most of what has gone on before.
It's hard to pinpoint what exactly is missing from Inkheart. It has an appealing premise (despite a sort of subversive subtext that may be indicating reading can be "dangerous"), fine actors, and is well shot and scored (with a compositional tip of the hat to the "Dies Irae," which is quoted in several cues). But something that may look great on paper needs that quintessential element--magic--to make a successful transition to a stellar film experience. And that, sadly, is what Inkheart seems to be missing--that very sense of wonder and the fantastic that is at the core of its very story. Magic is an elusive thing, not to state the obvious, and it unfortunately definitely eluded the makers of Inkheart for the most part.