The children's fantasy "Inkheart" arrives in theaters as an orphan of Warner Bros.' decision to fold up its New Line Cinema division, an orphan dumped in the movie wasteland of January.
Does this film of Cornelia Funke's novel deserve dismissal? Not really, though it is a bit of a humorless slog. In any event, one can exult in the Italian Riviera locations and see in a flash why a couple of Oscar winners and Mr. PG-rated Kids' Fantasy, Brendan Fraser, would sign on for the job.
Fraser stars as a book-binder who drags his daughter (Eliza Bennett) through every dingy old bookstore of Europe, seeking a novel that swallowed his wife nine years before. Not that he tells daughter Maggie this. But she's smart enough to recall that he hasn't read her a bedtime story ever since Mom disappeared.
Dad, it seems, is a Silvertongue, one of those characters described in the novel he seeks (titled "Inkheart"). In the act of reading a story aloud, he brings that story's reality to his own. Thus, characters from "Inkheart" - the fire-juggler Dustfinger (Paul Bettany) and the villain Capricorn (Andy Serkis) and his henchmen are chasing Dad. And Mom is lost in the book. And yes, this is awfully similar to last month's "Bedtime Stories," but never mind.
The bad guys catch up and Dad, finally confronted by Dustfinger's desire to go home, enlists wacky, book-collecting Aunt Elinor (Helen Mirren) and the actual author of "Inkheart" (Jim Broadbent) to help foil the villains, who want Dad to summon up this great special effect called "The Shadow." The heroes use scenes read aloud from "The Arabian Nights" and "The Wizard of Oz" (a dandy Italian tornado) to escape Capricorn's clutches, and the author tries to scribble new scenes to correct the fix that these folks find themselves in thanks to his dazzling prose.
"The written word. It's a powerful thing. You have to be careful with it!"
The Oscar winners (three of them, if you count Mrs. Bettany, Jennifer Connelly, who has a one-scene cameo) enliven things considerably with just a sprinkle of wit. Fraser and Bettany are mostly reduced to advancing the corny and worn action plot, blathering pages of exposition during the exceedingly dull middle third of "Inkheart." Miss Bennett, one of the kids in the far-superior "Nanny McPhee," doesn't have the charisma to lift this literary-minded enterprise off the printed page and into the realm of movie magic.
So while we can appreciate the decent effects, the bang-up settings and a good cast, we can only hope they got some sight-seeing in on their days off. Whatever magic there was on this shoot is probably in their home movies.
Whimsy shouldn't be overwhelming. It shouldn't be a busy, messy cacophony. By definition, there should be something delicate about it. Charming, even. "Inkheart" has long since slammed the book shut on that concept, with director Iain Softley cramming in more literary characters and mystical creatures than would seem humanly possible.
- Christy Lemire