Brendan Fraser, slipping comfortably into his new career as "family adventure dad," stars as Mo Folchart, a devout lover of books - his career is that of "book doctor," rescuing and refurbishing aging volumes - whose enthusiasm runs deeper than most. He's a silvertongue, you see, able to bring literary characters to life whenever he reads aloud. The catch, as there must always be, is that someone from our world winds up becoming trapped in the book world in return.
The screenplay, by David Lindsay-Abaire, works up such a clutter as it attempts to squeeze Funke's beloved novel into a 106-minute frame. Added to this is a lengthy, problematic production history (the film, originally scheduled for a 2007 release, was continually delayed by rewrites, reshoots, and the Writers Guild strike) that resulted in several elements unnecessarily reworked and an overall lack of cohesion to style.
As such, grown-ups will spend most of the movie picking apart the logic holes that remain as the film never quite settles on a clear definition of the rules of silvertongue powers. Late revelations leave us scratching our heads: well, if he could do that here, why couldn't he do that there? Why can this silvertongue do this, but that silvertongue can't? How does whatever controlling force decide who gets sent into the book? How come this happens here, but not there? Don't Europeans notice all those trolls and goblins running around, or do trolls and goblins fit in so well over there?
And so on. But, as I said, we mainly go along with it, because for the most part, "Inkheart" works rather nicely in creating the right feel as we rush headlong into flights of bookworm fancy. It starts right away, in a prologue where Mo reads from "Little Red Riding Hood" and we're treated to a hint of his powers while simultaneously being captivated by the language of the story. This is a tale in love with words; just listen to how carefully the stories-within-the-film are crafted, how delicately they're read. In another early scene, Mo and his daughter Meggie (Eliza Hope Bennett) visit a street market overflowing with used books, treated here as a goldmine of treasures waiting to be rediscovered - especially once Mo makes his way into one dusty shop where the pages whisper to him, calling to him with a sort of literary siren song.
It's in that shop he finds "Inkheart," an out-of-print fantasy novel he's been hunting for nine years, dragging Meggie across Europe in his quest. His reasons are secret at first, but soon characters from that book start showing up, including one, Dustfinger (Paul Bettany), who was sucked out of the book years ago and needs Mo to send him back. And another, the villainous Capricorn (Andy Serkis), who prefers the evils of our world, where he's grown quite comfortable; he'd like Mo to conjure the book's greatest monster, the Shadow, for the usual nefarious reasons.
From here on, it's standard fantasy adventure stuff: a couple chases, a few daring escapes, a visit to a castle filled with trolls and winged monkeys and yes, even a unicorn. It's not as daring as it could be, but it doesn't want to be, and we're OK with that.
The cast improves everything by being all around wonderful, despite problems with uneven interpretations. Bettany plays things seriously as a sulky stranger in a strange land, while Jim Broadbent (as a befuddled author) and Helen Mirren (as a kindly aunt) play things far more lightly and Serkis goes all-out ham, and deliciously so. (Fraser and Bennett are required to stick in the middle of all of this.) There's no sour performance in the bunch, but director Iain Softley (whose wildly varied career has given us "Hackers," "The Wings of the Dove," and "The Skeleton Key") seems uncertain as to which direction the material should go.
Softley also seems rather lost in the special effects, especially in the overwrought finale, which is a whole lot of noise but not much depth. He's more at home in the quieter scenes, when the script hones in more on the characters themselves and he can have more time to work with the cast. These smaller moments lift the film and lend it a gentleness that fits nicely with Funke's themes.
Those themes keep the film from falling apart under the logic gaps. For all its problems, it's a sweet, clever work, a sort of companion piece to "The Neverending Story," another love letter to the art of literature and the imagination; like that film, there's much here younger viewers will greatly enjoy as it validates their own love for books. A few parents might get wrapped up in it, too, especially once a few familiar characters from their own favorite childhood stories stop by. "Inkheart" is too muddled to succeed as precise filmmaking, but as fanciful escapism, it's a cozy page-turner.
Video & Audio
"Inkheart" is presented on a flipper disc, featuring a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer on one side and a 1.33:1 pan & scan job on the other. Both show a pinch of grain in several scenes but are otherwise quite sharp and full of detail. Black levels are especially solid, which helps considering the film's smart use of dark sets and night scenes.
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack keeps most of the action up front, with a nice use of the rear speakers for proper ambience. Dialogue is crisp and music is rich. Optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles are provided.
Our lone extra is "Eliza Reads to Us" (3:46; 1.78:1 anamorphic), in which the young star reads a passage from the book's final chapters, a sequence not used in the film. (Consider it an alternate ending.) Bennett's voice is perfect for the chore, while illustrations from the novel and "Reading Rainbow"-style accompanying visual interpretations of key lines keeps things visually exciting. Funke delivers a brief introduction. This extra appears on both sides of the disc.
Previews for a few other Warner Bros. titles play as the disc loads.
A bit too unfocused to be as successful as some other recent kid-lit fantasy adaptations, "Inkheart" still enchants enough to deserve a spin. The limp extras cancel out the fine transfer, though, so you'll do fine to simply Rent It.