2009-01-23 (General release)

Based on Cornelia Flunke’s best-selling novel of the same name, Inkheart adds a dark twist to the process of bringing books “to life.” Every story character conjured into this world condemns a human being to imprisonment in a book. This traffic between worlds is controlled by Silvertongues, bibliophiles whose reading aloud dissolves the barriers between fiction and reality.

Like many Silvertongues, Mo (Brendan Fraser) stumbled onto his powers by accident. He inadvertently unleashed the amoral Capricorn (Andy Serkis) and selfish Dustfinger (Paul Bettany) from the novel Inkheart when his daughter Maggie (Eliza Hope Bennet) was a baby, and lost his wife to the story: nine years later, he and Maggie travel through Europe searching for a copy of the novel that might bring her back.

Inkheart features high octane talent, from Dame Helen Mirren as Great-Aunt Elinor to Pulitzer Prize-winning writer David Lindsay-Ahaire. But the movie succumbs to every pitfall of play-it-safe kiddie entertainment: slack storytelling, anodyne direction, a clear division between good and evil, and emphasis on the cozy nuclear family with conventional girls’ roles.

The screenplay follows the listless episodic structure of the Harry Potter films, in which one barely connected segment follows another without cumulatively charging the overarching story. Apart from Capricorn and Dustfinger, the central characters are sketched at best. Mo is a mild-mannered scholar with an untapped aptitude for gung-ho heroics, a sort of Indiana Jones Lite. More importantly, Maggie’s role is underwritten for the most of the film, and depressingly archaic at its conclusion.

She accomplishes little except spy around corners and hang out at keyholes, bug her father, and tell whoever will listen that she wants to be a writer. She follows her father as he dashes from one crisis to the next, shows little initiative when imprisoned by Capricorn, and accepts her role as his instrument of destruction. Only when she is finally separated from her father, Elinor, and Dustfinger, does she act with a smidgen of autonomy and achieve her aim of writing a new world into being. However, the scriptwriter soon kills that creative aspiration, by letting all girls watching know that even if saving the world by the power of your imagination is good, finding a boy you like, even if he is an illiterate thief ejected from a fairy story, is even better.

The villains fare no better. Lively at first, both Elinor and Dustfinger succumb to altruism and self-sacrifice with very little struggle. Elinor, captured by Capricorn and swiftly rescued, declares she will never leave her books again. She repents of her selfishness, and returns to help Mo and Maggie defeat Capricorn. Fight scenes echo the excesses of John Boorman’s Excalibur, reminding viewers of just how exciting an actor Mirren can be, and how little Inkheart makes of her prodigious talents.

Much of the blame must go to director Iain Softley. His sole recipe for excitement seems to be larger, louder, and longer (especially the interminable denouement). He lets Fraser recycle the bland persona he’s brought to the three Mummy movies and abandons Bennet to meander through her scenes. On the other hand, Bettany shows yet again that he’s incapable of a dull performance, turning Dustfinger’s weakness into raffish charm with a shrug or half-smile, while Serkis clearly relishes every moment on camera. Still, the film is uncomfortably unbalanced, with the most compelling scenes are those focused on the supporting characters.

Inkheart closes in a flurry of loose ends carelessly knotted, without any of the novel’s suggestion that, once set in motion, events are not always amenable to human desires or actions, or that crossing between fiction and reality brings psychological as well as physical risks. In its conventionality, this movie resembles those ’50s Saturday morning matinees that played in provincial movie theatres: moral lessons only slightly less threatening than the sermons that followed the next day, and perhaps just as dangerous.

RATING 3 / 10