Now Available on DVD & Blu-ray
Much like Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder described his role as "I'm a dude playing a dude disguised as another dude," director Iain Softley's Inkheart is a movie that plays off a book disguised as another book.
Upon its publication in 2004, bestselling author Cornelia Funke's Inkheart, spent "a total of 70 weeks on the [New York Times Bestseller] list" and was "translated into 37 languages." The first cinematic entry of her Inkwork trilogy-- Softley's film arrives in theatres today as a light snack for those awaiting the postponed release of the next installment of Harry Potter on the big screen this summer.
Originally a New Line Cinema presentation, now releasing domestically from Warner Brothers a.k.a. the same two studios responsible for both the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings franchises, Inkheart seems like a natural fit for the production of a children's fantasy tale about characters dubbed "Silvertongues" who have the ability to bring the characters and events from the books they read aloud to life.
Obviously, the film and its original book by Cornelia Funke is meant as a celebration of children's literature, individual imagination, and the importance of parents reading books aloud to their children. However, nonetheless these valuable and worthwhile messages get a bit muddled via the contradictions of the plot which finds largely danger and unhappiness exiting the pages as characters vanish from the print and into our world in exchange for one of our own "humans" who get forced inside the binding to even out the transaction of fantasy switching into reality and vice versa.
The film begins as our hero Mortimer "Mo" Folchart (Brendan Fraser, upon whom Funke based the man) reads aloud to both his young daughter and loving wife, only to discover his cruel fate as a "Silvertongue" when his wife Resa disappears within the pages of Inkheart. Offering little in the way of an explanation as to his spouse's departure, we catch up with Mo several years later as the devoted book enthusiast and collector shares a love for the written word along with his now twelve year old daughter Meggie (Eliza Hope Bennett).
Although Meggie finds it odd that her father has never read aloud to her, she accompanies him on his continuous search for the increasingly rare and mysteriously disappearing copies of Inkheart. Fairly quickly, Mo manages to stumble on both the book and a man he'd read out of the text (played by Paul Bettany) who's as eager to get back into the pages of the book to be reunited with his wife (played by Bettany's real life love Jennifer Connelly in a brief cameo) as Mo is to return his wife to civilization.
As the men clash over the book and both try to dodge that terrifying master villain of Inkheart's book, Capricorn (Andy Serkis), Mo is grudgingly forced to bring Meggie up to speed on his perilous gift, only to discover that perhaps it's a familial trait. Eager to get Meggie away from Capricorn's clutches so that Mo can continue on his plight to bring his wife back, he journeys to bring the girl to stay with her estranged great-aunt Elinor (played by Oscar winner Helen Mirren).
Mirren, who mentioned in the production notes that she sought inspiration for the role from the "poet Edith Sitwell, who is famously quoted as saying that her hobbies were 'reading, listening to music and silence.'" An eccentric near-recluse who lives vicariously through the many collectible literary works she houses in her large estate, Mirren adds a great deal of blunt wit to the film, visibly having a ball and gleefully injecting Inkheart with some unexpected bursts of humor.
Featuring terrific cinematography and special effects which ultimately up the obvious "wow" factor of the work, sadly while it's creative and pro-literacy, its mixed message about the dangers of reading and words in general may confuse the youngest audience members who will also miss out on the many subtle literary references, textual jokes, and become frightened by some of its dark intensity.
Moreover, as the plot develops, Softley's interpretation of the novel-- penned by Pulitzer Prize winner David Lindsay-Abaire-- Inkheart evolves into an overwhelming homage to The Wizard of Oz both structurally and as one of many literary references laced throughout (and coupled with Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, Arabian Nights, etc.). Additionally, it feels all too familiar, borrowing elements for numerous fantasy tales including not only the aforementioned classic titles but other genre related works of the past where suddenly books, paintings, toys, and board games spring to life as in The Pagemaster, Jumanji, etc.
Therefore, in the end, it's the type of film that made me seriously wish I'd read Funke's book instead in that--as far as I can tell-- the entire "focus" has changed from the idea of the Inkheart book in the film to the grandeur of Inkheart the movie. Or to use Downey's train of thought, we're more impressed with the "dude" being played than we are by the "dude" playing him or the movie's spectacle verses the content itself.
More specifically, we aren't invested enough nor develop enough of an understanding about the "story" within the story to feel as though Mo's Inkheart was anything more than a kiddie version of a Hitchcockian MacGuffin or "sword in the stone," which kind of defeats the purpose in wanting to inspire us to get lost in books.
Perhaps the world of the Inkheart story is better explained in the novel but sadly, much like Softley's overly chilly rendition of The Wings of the Dove, it's hard to feel that moved by many of the characters who all seem a bit bland next to the special effects, aside from the refreshing change of pace for Mirren who nails the eccentric diva role perfectly.
Read the Books of Cornelia Funke