One of the problems that Warner/New Line may have faced with their 2008 fantasy "Inkheart" was that it followed another children's fantasy adventure with a similar theme, "Bedtime Stories," by only a few weeks, and audiences might have confused the two pictures. Yeah, well, that and the fact that "Inkheart" isn't all that original or engaging. At least on Blu-ray, it looks and sounds OK.
It is remarkable, isn't it, how Hollywood keeps coming up with simultaneous releases of similar material? Makes you wonder if it's really just coincidence, or if screenwriters don't eavesdrop on their rivals. Who knows. In any case, it makes it hard sometimes for viewers to know which version of something to watch.
Then, too, audiences had the choice of Adam Sandler in "Bedtime Stories" and Brendan Fraser in "Inkheart." Maybe for a lot of people, these two actors have been in so many silly, comic pictures, it was hard to make a distinction between them. In any case, in "Inkheart," based on the work of author Cornelia Funke ("The Thief Lord"), Fraser again plays a sweet but somewhat befuddled hero waging war against the forces of fantastical darkness. By now, he must be getting used to it, but the act is growing stale.
Be that as it may, "The Lord of the Rings" and the "Harry Potter" movies already set the bar pretty high for fantasies, and "Inkheart" never attains those lofty peaks. "Inkheart" is more prosaic than they are, and it never seems anywhere near as magical.
Here's the premise: Fraser plays a guy named Mo Folchart who is a "silvertongue," a man born with the gift of being able to bring fictional book characters to life. If he reads a story aloud, the fictional characters enter our world, and people from our world replace them in theirs. For reasons unknown (because the story never tells us), he fails to discover this gift until he is well into adulthood and has a wife and young daughter. Then one evening he reads a story aloud to them, and, yeah, you guessed it, the story's characters come to life in our world, and his wife, Resa (Sienna Guillory), disappears into theirs. Why the child didn't also disappear into the fictional world, the story doesn't explain. Get used to it.
Mo was reading a book called "Inkheart" when he lost his wife, and somehow he lost the book as well. In order to get his wife back, he must find another copy of the book to read aloud, but it's out of print and hard to find. So twelve years go by in the blink of a caption card, during which time Mo has been scouring every bookstore in the world looking for another edition. Meanwhile, his daughter, Meggie (Eliza Hope Bennett), has grown into her teen years and keeps wondering why her father drags her all around the globe from country to country. Apparently, they spent a good deal of time in England because while Mo speaks with a decidedly American accent, the daughter speaks in an English accent. Go figure.
The main plot kicks in when some of the book's characters themselves come looking for the book. The head baddie is no-goodnik named Capricorn, played by Andy Serkis. He's a cowardly bully, but it's not his fault. As another book character, Dustfinger (Paul Bettany), something of a dim bulb, tells us, That's the way the author wrote them. Remember Jessica Rabbit's line from "Who Framed Roger Rabbit": "I'm not bad; I'm just drawn that way"? Same here.
Anyway, the baddies (all of whom look like postapocalyptic Neo-Nazis) want Mo's abilities to make other book characters and events come to life in order for them to become rich and powerful. But here's the thing: They already have a silvertongue working for them. So why do they need Mo specifically? I dunno.
Early on in the story, Mo and Meggie go to Italy to meet with their aunt, Elinor, played by Helen Mirren. Elinor is a grande dame who lives in what looks like a lavish, storybook villa on Lake Como, a palazzo actually. As we ponder how she came into such wealth, she gets caught up in the adventure. Then, about halfway through the story the heroes find the author of "Inkheart," a fellow named Fenoglio, played by Jim Broadbent, an actor who seems to appear in all of these fantasy pictures. Mo figures Fenoglio would have an extra copy of his own book lying around. OK, but if Mo finds the author so easily, why didn't he look him up a dozen years before when he first went on his book-hunting quest? A little later the heroes meet Farid (Rafi Gavron), a lad from the "Arabian Nights" who speaks perfect twentieth-century English. Again, go figure.
You can see the tale's problem: Half the time you're wondering what the heck is going on and why things are so internally inconsistent, and the other half of the time you find there are so many characters, real and fictional, running around unfocused and half realized, it's hard to tell with whom to sympathize. When you have to question every other scene and a ferret steals the show, you know you're in trouble.
In its favor, the movie has some amiable characters in it, including the comical villains, and its Italian settings are gorgeous. To its detriment, though, it plays as if the author made up the narrative as it went along. Worse, the story has little real excitement or wit in it; in fact, it's rather somber most of the time, with director Iain Softley ("Hackers," "The Wings of the Dove," "The Skeleton Key") taking everything quite literally. As a result, "Inkheart" lacks much life or sparkle to draw one in. It just sort of sits there, hoping you've read the book and can fill in the details for yourself.
The movie alternates between gritty reality and semi-humorous whimsy, without much regard for the viewer's perception of the two moods. Plus, the episodic nature of the adventures tends to move the plot along in clumsy stops and starts, which doesn't exactly help its coherence or continuity.
You'd think "Inkheart" would be the perfect movie for book lovers, but, unfortunately, it's too inconsistent and illogical even in its own make-believe universe to be entirely satisfying.
The picture quality on this Blu-ray disc is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the VC-1 encode does a good job reproducing the film's original aspect ratio, 2.40:1, and replicating the colors in all their deep richness. On the other hand, the single-layer BD25 transfer isn't as good with overall definition, which can range from fairly soft to downright veiled. The video looks best in broad daylight scenes, which are radiant, but they are few and far between. Nevertheless, the cinematographer caught the Italian landscape well, and longer scenic shots come off with a good deal of detail.
The disc offers the choice of regular Dolby Digital 5.1 and lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1, with Dolby Digital the default. Remember to switch to TrueHD if your audio system can decode it. There, you find a firm, taut mid-bass, a pleasantly neutral midrange, some occasionally glistening highs, and a reasonably wide and strong dynamic range and impact. The standout, however, is the surround activity, which is quite enveloping. A rain of gold coins is particularly effective, as is a tornado that whips up a good bit energy all around.
Certainly, Warner/New Line cover all the bases here. The two-disc set includes separate Blu-ray and DVD copies of the movie, plus a digital copy compatible with iTunes and Windows Media devices. (The digital copy comes paired with the DVD edition on the second disc.)
In addition, we get several conventional bonuses, all of them in high def, the most important of which is a series of featurettes. First up is a six-minute affair called "A Story from the Cast and Crew," where author Cornelia Funke starts a story with a single line and asks each of the movie's stars to continue it. I remember I used to do this in writing with high school students every year for almost forty years, and they loved the exercise. But it usually always ended up with the students writing stories that went off on a lot of different tangents, just as this movie sometimes does. Next up is "From Imagination to Page: How Writers Write," a ten-minute featurette with the author and filmmakers, followed by "Eliza Reads to Us," a four-minute segment wherein the young actress reads a passage from the book that is not in the movie. The regular bonuses conclude with nine deleted scenes, totaling about thirteen minutes.
Finally, we get some BD-Live features; twenty-five scene selections; English and German spoken languages; Spanish and German subtitles; English captions for the hearing impaired; and a handsomely embossed slipcover to tie everything together.
Earlier, I commended "The Lord of the Rings" and the "Harry Potter" fantasies, and from where I stand the only other recent films I can mention in the same breath with them are "Stardust," "Enchanted," and "The Chronicles of Narnia," movies that adults and young adults can enjoy equally for their magic, adventure, and humor. It's true that I had high hopes for "The Golden Compass" as well, but that film didn't quite pan out as I hoped it would. That brings us to "Inkheart," which, like "The Golden Compass," goes for a dark, somber, yet still largely juvenile tone. As such, it works perfectly well; just don't expect it to capture everybody's imagination.