A film review by Craig J. Koban

INKHEART jj

2009, PG, 105 mins.

Mo: Brendan Fraser / Meggie: Eliza Hope Bennett / Elinor: Helen Mirren / Dustfinger: Paul Bettany / Fenoglio: Jim Broadbent / Capricorn: Andy Serkis

Directed by Iain Softley / Written by David Lindsay-Abaire, based on the novel by Cornelia Funke.

INKHEART is the kind of family-centric fantasy that has the noblest of intentions, but regrettably suffers from a most lackluster and banal execution. 

In many ways, it’s the prototypical poster film for the January release schedule: It’s not altogether a failure, but not altogether all that decent, but inevitably has the vibe of a film that has kind of been unceremoniously dumped into theatres during one of the more dubious release periods of the year, most likely out of fear of its inability to find an audience during the heavier traffic summer season.  The film itself was scheduled for release as early as March of 2008, but studio chiefs – in a move that almost always reveals a lack of commitment or faith on a project – moved the release date to December and then rather hastily to this January.  Considering the final product, there’s not much doubt here that INKHEART will ever rise above the level of a disposable and forgettable children’s entertainment. 

It’s kind of a shame, because the film – based on TINTENHERZ, a young-adult child fantasy novel written by Cornelia Funke, the first in a trilogy of books – does have a nifty premise and, more notably, contains a truly worthwhile message for kids of all ages: It’s a work that champions literature and reading and how the latter acts as a power conduit to one’s inner imagination.  On these very basic levels, INKHEART has fairly reputable aspirations – a work of fiction that wants to elicit young people to awaken within themselves a passion for books is not and overall bad thing. Yet, all of the sincere intentions with inspiring our youth to break away from the transfixing allure of their X-box 360s and towards books cannot make up for the fact that INKHEART, as a fantasy, lacks a serious amount of magic and extraordinary awe.  This is simply a fantasy film that’s decidedly low on wonder, and while a film of this genre should have easily inspired a real sense of whimsical exploration with its otherworldly themes, it lamentably inspires a considerable amount of watch checking, at least for adult members such as myself in the audience.  My wrist grew very tired for all of the exercise during the screening.

The film’s basic hook – that of people that have the power to bring the descriptions of what they read in books to life – seems neat enough, but INKHEART never once fully capitalizes on all of the compelling and savory possibilities of this extraordinary power.  Perhaps what’s even more tedious is the film’s sense of freewheeling irregularity with its premise, especially with the way it seems to make up rules and laws within its own world whenever it sees fit.  For example, when one of the “Silvertongues” (or people that can bring literal life to the words on the page after reading them) reads from a book and brings to life any aspect of it, one person from the real world is sent into the world of the book.  Tit for tat.  The logic here is fine enough, but INKHEART sort of slumbers and meanders its way through its peculiar premise: too much of what happens feels arbitrary, especially during the film’s fateful climax that has one particular character wielding the power to defeat the evil doers in the film.  This kind of make me sit up, scratch my head, and ask, “If I could bring to life to anything I read, then why not just write down whatever I needed to in order benefit me at a particular moment?"   I sort of loathe when films try to establish a set of boundaries and rules throughout their running time and then just randomly throw them out the window whenever they deem fit to do so.  Sigh. 

On a positive, the film does benefit from a plucky, spirited, and likeable child protagonist.  After a very brief introductory scene that sets up the particulars twelve years in the past, the screenplay zips forward to the present where we see a young teen named Meggie Folchart (Eliza Hope Bennett, a wonderful find) and her father, Mo (Brendan Fraser, once again playing yet another one of his square jawed nice-guy heroes, but on serious auto-pilot here) are on a trip through the bookstores of Europe scavenging around for a used cope of a very enigmatic, rare, and widely sought after work called “Inkheart".  As revealed in the brief introductory flashback, the mysterious book may or may not have had something to do with the startling disappearance of Meggie’s mother, Resa (Sienna Guillory).  

In one particular drab and dark little bookstore, Mo begins to hear the faint and shrill cries of characters that seem to be speaking to him from beyond the pages (this must be monumentally annoying).  The more Mo prowls through the book isles the more some indescribable force seems to draw him to one specific book, which ends up being Inkheart, the work he has been so desperately trying to locate.  He takes the worn copy off of the bookshelf, buys it, sneaks it into his pocket and then abruptly leaves the store with his daughter.  However, it soon becomes apparent that a grubby and creepy looking man with a long and worn overcoat, greasy and disheveled hair, and a real knack for manipulating fire is following the pair. 

This weird man in question is Dustfinger (Paul Bettany), who has made it his mission to locate Mo.  It seems that Mo is one of the very few Silvertongues in the world and the last time he read aloud out of Inkheart, his wife was sucked into the universe from the book whereas Dustfinger was whisked into the “real” world…and he is seriously homesick from his wife back in the literary world (played by Jennifer Connolly, in what inexplicably amounts to a 30-second cameo).  Unfortunately, there is also another figure that Mo has inadvertently transported from the pages of Inkheart into his world, the villainous and slimy Capricorn (Andy Serkis), who has created for himself a small little castle empire on earth with the aid of other characters teleported from the pages of the troublesome book.  His goals are simple: he wants to capture Mo so that he can read from whatever book he sees fit that will benefit him the most.  Dustfinger, on the other hand, simply wants to go back “home”, but as Mo keenly reminds him, he has no real control of his powers, nor does he have any idea whom will emerge from the book, nor does he have a clue as to what from the real world will be teleported back to the book. 

In order to get some timely assistance, Mo and Meggie seek out his semi-reclusive and kooky Aunt Elinor (played with a capricious edge by Helen Mirren), whom has a book collection that could rival any library.  Of course, the heroes lose the valuable copy of Inkheart to the nefarious Capricorn, so their attempts at securing another copy hit some serious setbacks, which ultimately brings them to the original author of the book (played in a fun and offbeat performance by Jim Broadbent), who rightfully is very hesitant about Mo’s unexpected gifts (he also becomes a bit of stooge in the film, especially for how he quickly accepts Mo’s gifts without much in the way of serious proof).  Unavoidably, Mo and Meggie end up finding themselves captive of Capricorn, where he reveals his true end game of wanting a Silvertongue to unleash the unfathomably powerful creature from Inkheart to life, The Shadow.  As to what The Shadow is or actually does is not truly made all that clear in the film: all you need to know is that it is a gigantic, pissed off humanoid cloud formation with fiery eyes and ravenous teeth that looks like it made its way off of the discarded production art tables of the last LORD OF THE RINGS film.

As stated, there is a hint and glimmer of inventiveness and creativity in INKHEART, but it curiously seems vacant throughout much of its running time.  Iain Softley (who has directed films as diverse as K-PAX, HACKERS, THE SKELETON KEY, and BACKBEAT) never infuses the film with much style or innovation.  Aside from some arresting and polished visual effects with the Shadow creature near the film’s conclusion, INKHEART is one of the more conventional looking fantasies in a long while.  Even when examples of the genre fall flat on their faces, they usually make up for their deficiencies in the imagery department.  Yet, too much of this film feels sluggishly borrowed from the unwanted scraps of lesser fantasy epics.  Just look at the lack of visual confidence in the presentation of Capricorn’s evil castle lair:  aside from a few fleeting picturesque shots, most of the establishing shots are done from such an annoying long distances that you never really gain a satisfying impression of the location.  The movie simple lacks a secure and assured eye for imaginative detail. 

The performances are all adequate, three of whom are former Oscar winners (Connolly, Mirren, and Broadbent), but the high pedigree of talent on board is not given much to really work with.  Mirren and Broadbent are amiable in small dosages here in their fairly marginalized parts and Brendan Fraser – who has the market cornered on portraying easily likeable heroes with a sort of bumbling charisma and swashbuckling vigor – never generates any real sense of enthusiasm for the underlining material and character he’s playing: he’s simply going though the motions here and you never once see the glint of joyous and youthful eagerness as Mo as he chiefly demonstrated with similar characters in THE MUMMY and last year’s disposable, but fun and entertaining, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH.  

And then there’s the great Andy Serkis, who was such a marvel at creating Gollum in THE LORD OF THE RING films, who does what he can with a villain role that lacks a serious level of tense dread and intimidation.  Serkis is game chap in the film, but he never really seems to be given much free reign with really developing Capricorn into a nasty and memorably vile antagonist worthy of our scorn.  Paul Bettany’s Dustfinger is an even more problematic creation in the film: I am not sure whether the film had a firm grasp on the tone the character should approximate, and Bettany’s stern and fairly flavourless performance takes itself a bit more seriously than it probably should have.  For an actor with a flair for playful frivolity, it’s kind of disheartening to see him play Dustfinger as such a sulky, dour, and downbeat persona.  A more cheerful approach that balanced the character’s melancholic woes with a whimsical edge would have been healthier. 

Two more books in this series have been released in Germany, 2005’s Inkspell and 2007’s Inkdeath respectively, but after seeing the colorless and bland film adaptation of the first in the trilogy, INKHEART, it’s really hard to see this film as the beginning of another would-be family fantasy hit series in the vein of HARRY POTTER or THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA.  The film is fairly lifeless on a level of intrigue: I think that both kids and adults will find it equally disenchanting, not to mention that on a scale of wide-eyed wonder and opulent spectacle, the film is a negligent bore.  Aside from its lack of visual innovation and characters that fail to muster much of a rooting interest in them, INKHEART kind of weakly stumbles its way throughout its story and themes.  It’s funny, but for a film that professes such a passion and reverence for some of the most inspired and imaginative books ever written, it never seems to draw any inspiration from them to concoct its own story that enthralls and entertains.  Instead of feeling like being magically transported into a rousing and richly immersing world, you leave the theatre kind of shrugging your shoulders with disapproval and disappointment, yearning to return to the normal world outside the darkened cinema.  

No fantasy should have that unintentional effect.  

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