February 1, 2009

Movie Review: Inkheart

inkheart1_smallOver the past couple of years it seems that studios have been trying to make the early months of the year a place to open modest fantasy films. You know, the ones that don't have exorbitant budgets like the Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia. Of course, this is just guessing on my part. 2007 saw Walden Media score a hit with Bridge to Terabithia, one that proved to be a very strong and effective film. Taking a cue from that success, Nickelodeon brought us The Spiderwick Chronicles, a film which saw similar box office success and was also a high quality release. Now we have New Line seeking to continue this trend with Inkheart. Unfortunately, while the movie is definitely in the same genre, it is decidedly not nearly the same quality level. No, it is not bad, but definitely a little disappointing.

inkheart8Inkheart is based on a novel by Cornelia Funke and has been adapted to the big screen by writer David Lindsay-Abaire and director Iain Softley. I have not read the novel, but I have to believe the characters are a bit more fully rounded on the written page than they turned out on the big screen. As presented on film, Inkheart is a good story that speaks to the power of the written word and wants to encourage the discovery of the secrets contained with the covers of countless books. It also speaks to the strong pull and need for family. Sadly, somewhere in the adaptation process direction was lost and the path away from character and towards the plot. If all you want is a story, this is the movie for you.

Brendan Fraser is Mortimer Folchart, a book collector, fixer, hunter, you name it. He also possesses a special ability, something that few people have, and I have to believe fewer actually want. Mo (as he is called) is a Silvertongue. This means that whatever he reads aloud becomes reality. For example, read about the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz and they will spring from the pages and become manifest in the real world. To say this ability has caused some problems would be an understatement.

inkheart5Early on in the manifestation of his ability, Mo unwittingly set free a number of the creepy denizens of a book called Inkheart, from the bad guy Capricorn (Andy Serkis) to the lonely fire-juggler Dustfinger (Paul Bettany). However, the biggest side effect of Mo's reading was that it sent his wife, Resa (Sienna Guillory), into the book. Ever since this time Mo has been on a quest to find the book and get her out, all while being pursued by Dustfinger and Capricorn. This story finds all of the players coming together after so many years of hunting.

The film is not as easily setup as I had just described it. It is accurate, but the film takes a little longer to get going, making the early goings a little confusing as I tried to place all the events and people into the correct place. Once it gets going, it is a pretty straightforward affair.

The central conflict has Mo seeking to get his wife back, Dustfinger wanting to go home, and Capricorn liking it here and wanting more book help to be provided by the Silvertongue. All of this is accompanied by nice use of effects to show the combining of the fantasy book world with the real world.

The performances are mostly fine. As they are at the mercy of the screenplay, I find it hard to blame them for the feature's shortcomings. Brendan Fraser is not that bad of an actor, although he seems to be forever stuck in these family adventure films. No, not necessarily a bad thing but I feel it holds him back from showing what he can do. Helen Mirren is entertaining as the quirky reclusive aunt who joins them on their adventure. Eliza Hope Bennett turns in serviceable work as Meggie, Mo and Resa's daughter. Then there is Gollum himself, Andy Serkis hamming it up as our villain, giving evil a smiling face.

inkheart4Stealing the show, acting wise, is Paul Bettany as Dustfinger. He brings genuine intensity tempered sadness to the role of a man who just wants to go home. He is driven by a degree of desperation and wants nothing more than to go home, although he is also afraid of the fate that could await him in the book as written by the novel's author.

Direction from Iain Softley is solid if unspectacular. He sets the story up and lets it go with little visual flair to stand it apart from other similar films. The main issues fall on David Lindsay-Abaire, whose screenplay does a fine job of telling the story, but when it comes to character they just are not there. I could not find a good reason to really care about them as they moved through the tale. Sure, they had a definite and admirable goal, but all they did was march towards it, there was little supporting material to fully drag me in.

Still, it is not a complete failure. I loved the focus put on the power of books and their ability to take us to faraway lands and introduce us to interesting people. It almost makes me wish I had time to read more often than I do. There is something magical about books ability to fuel an imagination and it is something that seems to be on a downward slide in these days of technological advancement.

Bottomline. Not great, not terrible. Inkheart is serviceable fantasy-spiced adventure with a good supporting cast performance and a positive message in favor of reading. If only the script took the next step, this could have been really special.

Mildly Recommended.

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