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Dustin Putman

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Inkheart  (2009)
2 Stars
Directed by Iain Softley.
Cast: Brendan Fraser, Eliza Hope Bennett, Helen Mirren, Paul Bettany, Sienna Guillory, Jim Broadbent, Rafi Gavron, Andy Serkis, Matt King, Steve Speirs, Stephen Graham, John Thomson, Jennifer Connelly.
2009 – 106 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for fantasy action and mild language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, January 18, 2009.
Big-screen adaptations of popular, well-loved young adult novels—many, but not all of them, in the fantasy realm—is a fad that doesn't look to be dimming anytime soon. Each one is naturally met with varying degrees of success, and "Inkheart," based on the first part of Cornelia Funke's literary trilogy, is more along the lines of "City of Ember," lacking the exuberance of imagination inherent in the "Harry Potter" saga, "The Golden Compass," and "Bridge to Terabithia." That is not to accuse "Inkheart" of lacking a creative storyline, but to simply suggest that it hasn't smoothly transitioned to the film medium. There is too much obvious wasted potential in what Iain Softley (2005's "The Skeleton Key") has directed and David Lindsay-Abaire (2005's "Robots") has penned for the screenplay.

Ever since her mother, Resa (Sienna Guillory), seemingly abandoned them, 12-year-old Meggie Folchart (Eliza Hope Bennett) and bookbinder father Mortimer (Brendan Fraser) have traveled across Europe in search of a copy of a rare book entitled Inkheart. Unbeknownst to Meggie, Mortimer has a rare gift to read people into stories and read characters out of them. Resa, it turns out, has become trapped in the world of this novel. When a copy of Inkheart is found and read from once more, it opens the gates between the real world and the fictional one. With the help of lovelorn Inkworld fire-juggler Dustfinger (Paul Bettany), Inkheart author Fenoglio (Jim Broadbent), and Meggie's great aunt Elinor (Helen Mirren), Mortimer sets out to save Resa from the clutches of the evil Capricorn (Andy Serkis), who has enslaved her as a mute maidservant.

"Inkheart" features an absorbing premise with an irresistible component in the way Mortimer's oral reading of books pulls elements of the stories into the here and now, and vice versa. The trouble is that this is confusingly rendered and treated contradictorily; sometimes, Mortimer seems to be able to pick and choose what he pulls out of books or what people he can transport into them, while at other times it appears to be out of his hands. Director Iain Softley continues to not play fair with the viewer, and as the plot builds in contrivance, the audience is left perplexed as to what is happening in the real world and what is happening in the fictional landscape. The incorporation of pieces from other novels into the tale, from the twister and Toto in L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to the character of Farid (Rafi Gavron) in Naguib Mahfouz's Arabian Nights and Days, are touched upon but not explored in any satisfactory detail. The finished product of "Inkheart" teases, but does not fulfill, with what could have been.

The opening half-hour is inviting and exciting in its setup, aided by the father-daughter relationship between Mortimer and Meggie, the first appearances of spitfire aunt Elinor, and lush scenery of the Italian countryside. By comparison, the second act up until the climax is slow-moving to the point of dreary and a mess of warring plot elements that must have been more comprehensible in Cornelia Funke's novel. So much of what occurs is repetitive—a series of exposition scenes set in dank dungeons and corridors—that the picture quickly grows into a chore to sit through. It ultimately never reclaims its footing from the perfunctory hole it finds itself in.

Brendan Fraser (2008's "Journey to the Center of the Earth") is surprisingly low-key and serious as Mortimer Folchart, free of the overacting buffoonery he tends to slide into whenever he is appearing in family-oriented mass entertainment. By treating his character and his fatherly bond with Meggie seriously, Fraser helps to invigorate some honest emotions into the fantastical surroundings. As Meggie, Eliza Hope Bennett (2005's "Nanny McPhee") is an eye-catcher with charisma to burn, even if she is a bit too old to be playing a pre-teen. Helen Mirren (2007's "National Treasure: Book of Secrets") additionally classes things up as the spirited Elinor, who doesn't take kindly to other people messing with her sacred collection of books.

Paul Bettany (2008's "The Secret Life of Bees"), on the other hand, is let down by director Iain Softley in his portrayal of Dustfinger, an imagined character yearning to return to love Roxanne (Jennifer Connelly) until he discovers that he is fated to perish in the novel. Jennifer Connelly (2008's "The Day the Earth Stood Still"), Bettany's actual wife, briefly shows up in a cameo, but apparently was not available to shoot the conclusion to her character. Because of this, Dustfinger's reuniting with Roxanne is done in a long shot that steals away from it whatever emotional impact it might have otherwise had. This scene is a particular case of bad filmmaking.

"Inkheart" may not work as a motion picture in its current uneven state, but any movie that presses the importance of reading and the power of the written word can't be a total wash. These are valuable and earnest lessons to teach to younger viewers. It is a shame, then, that what has shown up on the screen couldn't have been more lively. Lackadaisical instead of energetic, the film just sort of sits there, never able to organize its ideas and vision into a coherent whole. Having seen "Inkheart" only a day ago, its details have already begun to fade from memory. Great literature and cinema is not this easily forgotten.
© 2009 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman