When you have to question every other scene and a ferret steals the show, you know you're in trouble.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

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.

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 about 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 starts and stops, 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.

Warner/New Line offer the DVD picture in two screen formats, wide (2.40:1) and standard (1.33:1). The studio continues to insist that the standard-screen version has been formatted to fit my screen. I dunno. I watched in widescreen, of course, where the anamorphic reproduction looked pretty good--reasonably clean and clear. Colors are fairly natural, except some facial hues, which tended to be too dark. Definition is on a par with most SD discs these days, meaning it can't compete with 1080p high-def but holds its own in any case. It is sometimes a bit soft and veiled, but in broad daylight scenes, things are more radiant. The cinematographer caught the Italian landscape well, and longer scenic shots come off with a modest amount of detail.

The disc provides Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, displaying an acceptably taut mid-bass, a slightly forward but still natural midrange, some occasionally glistening highs, and a decent dynamic range and impact. The standout, however, is the all-enveloping surround activity. A rain of gold coins is particularly effective, as is a tornado that whips up a good bit energy.

There is not much in the way of extras involved on the disc. Maybe the studio figured the two screen formats were enough. The only other bonus items are the featurette "Eliza Reads to Us," a four-minute segment wherein the young actress reads a passage from the book that is not in the movie; and access to a digital copy of the movie, compatible with Windows Media only and not with Apple Macintosh and iPod devices.

In addition, we get twenty-five scene selections; English as the only spoken language; Spanish subtitles; English captions for the hearing impaired; and a handsomely embossed slipcover for the keep case. (Incidentally, the keep case is one of those affairs that many studios are using these days, one with the plastic cut away front and back in several different designs. I'm not sure if these cases are supposed to save money on materials or look cool or what, but to me they seem flimsy and cheap.)

Parting Shots:
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.


Film Value