Inkheart (Germany/United Kingdom/United States, 2009)

January 20, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Inkheart Poster

With a premise as potentially rewarding as that of Inkheart, one can be forgiven for being a little disappointed by the final result. When placed alongside other PG-rated fantasy adventure tales, this one struggles to capture the imagination. Part of the problem results from a lack of internal consistency - the movie arbitrarily changes the rules to suit the circumstances. Another element is a failure to generate momentum. Although Inkheart reaches a climax, it doesn't build to it and, when it happens, it's more likely to provoke a shrug than an explosion of satisfaction. Inkheart looks good and is well acted but, in the end, it left me indifferent.

The protagonist is young Meggie Folchart (Eliza Hope Bennett), the teenage daughter of Mo Folchart (Brendan Fraser). Together, father and daughter scour the used bookstores of Europe, searching for a copy of the rare tome Inkheart, which is in some way connected with the long-ago disappearance of Meggie's mother, Resa (Sienna Guillory). It seems that Mo is a "Silvertongue" - someone who, by reading aloud, can make a story come true. However, when characters from a book are transported to Earth, there must be an exchange, with someone from this "reality" entering the realm of the novel. At the moment, Mo's past is emerging to haunt him. Two characters for whose transportation he is responsible - the villainous Capricorn (Andy Serkis) and the homesick Dustfinger (Paul Bettany) - have tracked him down. Capricorn wants Mo to read for him while Dustfinger wants to return to the world within the book. When Meggie and Mo need sanctuary, they turn to the mansion of Great Aunt Elinor (Helen Mirren). And when they are unable to procure a copy of Inkheart, they seek out the author (Jim Broadbent).

Recent years have seen two other examples of books coming to life: the dramatic comedy Stranger than Fiction and the modern-day fable Bedtime Stories. Inkheart, based on the popular children's book by Cornelia Funke, uses a similar idea to go in a different direction. Here, characters and scenes move back and forth between reality and fiction as guided by the readings of someone with a magical ability. As the film progresses, the Silvertongues (there are more than one) show an increasingly precise control over their powers, so it begs the question of why, given the final solution, the story couldn't have been wrapped up in a few minutes? The film uses a classic deus ex machina resolution that is fundamentally unsatisfying because it makes the entire adventure that precedes it pointless.

Putting aside high-profile tales like The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter, live-action fantasy stories aimed at family audiences have not met with much success, and there's no reason to believe that Inkheart will fare appreciably better. The movie lacks the necessary hook to excite younger viewers and is not sufficiently sophisticated for older members of the audience. Children will get the most out of it because they will relate more strongly to Meggie and won't be as concerned with the film's structural flaws, but this isn't the kind of movie they'll be clamoring to see. It is reminiscent of the better crafted City of Ember in terms of intent, scope, and target audience, and will probably generate an equally tepid response.

There's nothing wrong with the acting. In fact, in getting capable performers like Paul Bettany, Helen Mirren, and Jim Broadbent aboard, the filmmakers have shown that every attempt was made to ensure a quality cast. Few would peg Brendan Fraser as being on the same talent plateau as the others (two of whom have won Oscars), but he was Funke's choice for Mo and his nice guy persona and penchant for mixing comedy with action serve him well in the role. Fresh face Eliza Bennett (wonder if her mother is a fan of Jane Austen?) leaves the most lasting impression. In her first major screen role, she's captivating. Andy Serkis, provided with a rare part in which he's not forced to provide motion capture, is suitably slimy and evil, as is required for a villain in a film like this. There is also a third Oscar winner in the cast, although she is uncredited. Bettany's wife, Jennifer Connelly, has a cameo as Dustfinger's bride.

Inkheart displays a reverence for books and, while it states its case for the well-worn pages of a novel offering a portal into a reality in the mind, it struggles a little to give life to that idea. The movie wants to be a sprawling excursion into fantasy and imagination but the screenplay limits it. The incorporation of elements from The Wizard of Oz are nice, but one wonders why characters and themes from many other equally well-known and beloved novels couldn't have been included. It's the limitations of the film when considering the nearly limitless possibilities suggested by the premise that make Inkheart a disappointment. As a children's film, it's okay but many adults will be less than enchanted.

Inkheart (Germany/United Kingdom/United States, 2009)

Run Time: 1:46
U.S. Release Date: 2009-01-23
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1