Movie review: 'Inkheart' lacks magic

  • Updated: January 29, 2009 - 4:09 PM

"Inkheart" has the pedigree, but lacks the magical excitement essential to a blockbuster crowd pleaser.

Top-heavy with acting talent, sumptuously photographed and unusually literate, "Inkheart" is another link in the chain of upscale children's fantasy films stretching from "Harry Potter" to "Narnia" to "The Golden Compass." Boasting a director with serious art house cred (Iain Softley, "The Wings of the Dove") and Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist David Lindsey-Abaire as screenwriter, it is as prestigious a kiddie film as you could imagine.

But while it hits all the right notes, the film lacks the wild, magical excitement essential to a blockbuster crowd pleaser. It's solid and joyless. Adapted from the novel from Cornelia Funke, the German J.K. Rowling, "Inkheart" imagines that people who read fiction aloud with magical fluency -- so-called "silvertongues" -- can pluck characters, objects, creatures and even weather patterns from the realm of myth into the here and now. It's a gift shared by few, their control of the power is imperfect, and it sometimes has the consequence of teleporting innocent bystanders to the other side.

Brendan Fraser stars as antique book restorer Mortimer "Mo" Folchart, who has been rearing his daughter Meggie (Eliza Bennett) since her mother (Sienna Guillory) vanished while Dad was reading a bedtime story. Now a feisty, intelligent 12-year-old, Meggie wants to know why Mo is spending their vacation on the Italian Riviera scouring antique bookstores for the rare, out-of-print adventure novel "Inkheart."

Her curiosity becomes concern when scar-faced Dustfinger (Paul Bettany) accosts Mo, and alarm when a crew of thugs kidnaps them from the villa of Mo's book-loving great-aunt Elinor (Helen Mirren).

The henchmen belong to Capricorn (Andy Serkis), a literary villain now operating on this side of the reality divide. With his goons and a menagerie of minotaurs and flying monkeys, Capricorn pressures Mo to read more allies into existence. Mo escapes and seeks the aid of Fenoglio (Jim Broadbent), the author of "Inkheart," in thwarting Capricorn's dastardly schemes. Dustfinger has his own agenda, demanding that Mo read him back into the fantasy from which he came.

Like lint on dark pants, the story picks up a caravan of subsidiary characters including a hunky young thief from "The Arabian Nights," Meggie's long-gone mom, Rapunzel and a well-known little dog from Kansas.

The overplotted film swarms with baffling character points -- why is this person inexplicably mute, how did that one develop the ability to breathe fire like a dragon? -- and 11th-hour twists about rewriting stories for happily-ever-after endings. The overqualified cast gives its all (it's a hoot to see the regal Mirren charging into battle astride a unicorn, and Bettany is charismatic) but logical lapses and sober-sided direction siphon off the fun. The screenplay hammers away at the pleasures of reading, and in this case it might be best to read the book and skip the movie.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

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    ★★ 1/2 out of four stars

    Rating: PG for fantasy adventure action, some scary moments and brief language.

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