Friday, January 23, 2009

Inkheart: Somewhat stained

Inkheart (2008) • View trailer for Inkheart
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for quite a lot of scary action violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.23.09
Buy DVD: Inkheart • Buy Blu-Ray: Inkheart (+ BD-Live) [Blu-ray]

Some movies are curious creatures, and Inkheart is a perfect example.

Director Iain Softley's adaptation of Cornelia Funke's best-selling novel is handsomely mounted, with a top-drawer cast, sumptuous production values and quite believable special effects. The story itself, scripted by David Lindsay-Abaire with Funke's participation, is a clever pastiche of beloved fairy tales, and a tribute to the sense of wonder that books can awaken in readers young and old.
After being confronted by a wealth of fantastic events, Mo (Brendan Fraser) and
his daughter, Meggie (Eliza Hope Bennett), hope for answers and suggestions
from Elinor (Helen Mirren) ... but get little beyond rambling speeches. Try as
it might, this film simply doesn't deliver the magic one expects from such
an engaging premise.

All the necessary elements are present, and the movie should deliver the same edge-of-the-seat suspense that Funke's 2004 book brought to so many happy fans (who then went on to devour the two sequels, 2005's Inkspell and last year's Inkdeath).

And yet...

Softley's film is oddly soulless. Genuine tension is frequently absent, because some of the actors simply don't sell the material all that persuasively. (Paul Bettany is a vibrant exception; he's sensational.) In star Brendan Fraser's case, the problem could be too much familiarity; after three Mummy installments and last summer's Journey to the Center of the Earth, his "wise-cracking reluctant hero" schtick is wearing rather thin.

As for Helen Mirren, she's inhabiting some other film entirely. Her character's stream-of-consciousness monologues are pointless and mildly annoying, and Softley's handling of Mirren is clumsy and even embarrassing at times. What's the point of hiring an actress of her caliber, if she's not given anything important to do?

The other problem, also having to do with familiarity, isn't this film's fault. It should be noted that Adam Sandler's recent Christmas vehicle, Bedtime Stories, bears a highly uncomfortable resemblance to the central gimmick in Funke's books: the notion that reading/telling a story aloud brings its ingredients — characters, settings, random bric-a-brac — to life in our "real" world.

Two such film fantasies, arriving right on top of each other? Somebody's been reading somebody else's mail again...

(Not long into this film, readers of Jasper Fforde's popular Thursday Next novels also will discover similarities between the two series. For the record, Funke's books are aimed at young readers, while Fforde's offerings — and their endless use of hilariously awful puns and wordplay — are much more adult.)

Anyway, Fraser stars as Mortimer "Mo" Folchart, a "book doctor" — surely one of the coolest professions ever given a protagonist — who possesses a magical and highly dangerous gift. He's a "silvertongue," who has the ability to read things into existence. But indulging this talent is as dangerous as trying to bargain with the Devil; side effects and unexpected consequences are the norm, rather than the exception.

Worse yet, the moment at which he actually learned of his gift, Mo also discovered that reading things out of a book necessitated a trade. After accidentally bringing various characters to life from an engrossing but somewhat obscure fantasy novel titled Inkheart, Mo is horrified to realize that his beloved wife, Resa (Sienna Guillory), has vanished into the book.

That was nine years ago. Ever since, Mo and his now 12-year-old daughter, Meggie (Eliza Hope Bennett, quite a charmer), have been on the run from Capricorn (Andy Serkis, hammily over the top), the evil villain from Inkheart, who has taken quite a fancy to our world. Mo spends all his time searching for another copy of Inkheart, so he can read his wife back out of the book; Capricorn has been busy destroying every copy he finds.

Up to this point, Mo never has explained his talent to Meggie, or attempted to address what happened to her mother.

The in-between character is Bettany's Dustfinger, a "fire juggler" whose nobler instincts are thwarted constantly by the selfish traits he was given by Fenoglio, the author of Inkheart. Bettany thus winds up as the good bad guy ... or maybe the bad good guy. Either way, he delivers the acting conviction that feels absent from everybody else.

And besides, he has a cool four-legged sidekick.

Dustfinger also wants to find a copy of the book, so that Mo can read him back into it, where he can be reunited with his own wife (an unbilled Jennifer Connelly, in an eyeblink cameo).

Capricorn, having holed up in a castle where he can fully exercise his megalomania, has thoroughly enjoyed exploiting another silvertongue; the castle dungeons thus are laden with all sorts of creatures, from minotaurs and flying monkeys to a ticking crocodile. (Much of the fun here, as with Funke's books, is deducing the source of each new animal, vegetable or mineral.)

Unfortunately, Capricorn's resident reader has a stutter, and thus many of these creations are oddly incomplete; most of his minions, for example, are scarred by lines of text from their books of origin. Capricorn thus wants Mo in his clutches, in order to obtain "superior" goodies.

The core conflicts are classic fairy-tale fodder: Mo is driven by love and the hope of rescuing his wife; Capricorn is motivated by greed; Dustfinger is the wild card we'd like to trust, who lets us down every time. Meggie, for her part, just wants to know what's going on ... and why she's starting to actually hear characters speak from inside random books.

Unfortunately, Lindsay-Abaire's script condenses Funke's book to the point that the film becomes little but one long series of redundant chases and escapes. Indeed, Capricorn has Mo and/or Meggie in his power several times, yet always postpones what seems like the logical next step — several straight hours of productive reading! — by tossing our heroes in the dungeon just so they can escape one more time.

And it seems like forever before Meggie finally figures out the logical and blindingly obvious solution to some — if not all — of their problems, and acts accordingly. How dense must a fantasy heroine remain, before we begin to get impatient?

Jim Broadbent brings considerable comic relief as Fenoglio, who pops up about halfway through the film and subsequently marvels at the way in which all his beloved characters — good and bad — have been brought to life. Rafi Gavron contributes youthful vitality as Farid, a boy from 1001 Arabian Nights who is brought into our world from an ancient desert cave.

Mirren is thoroughly wasted as Meggie's great-aunt Elinor, and Capicorn's wholly unnecessary destruction of this woman's prized library is too brutal an act for this otherwise lightweight adventure.

All the special-effects creatures are terrific, and the story builds to a grand climax within the walls of Capricorn's castle. The scenes thereafter are a bit flat, though, because numerous questions are left unanswered. Sequels, anybody?

I feel a bit churlish, not having a better opinion of a family-friendly project that clearly was a labor of love by so many different contributors. Inkheart certainly deserves high marks for effort, but the whole is sadly less than the sum of its sincere parts.

Best, I think, to read the book instead.

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