We have seen rather a lot of Brendan Fraser recently, what with The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and Journey at the Center of the Earth both released in the second half of last year. He’s back again, and while Inkheart is a vastly superior film to his previous efforts, his presence contributes little to its success. In fact, his muscular appeal strikes one of the few jarring notes in an otherwise commendable minor fantasy film.
Inkheart has the same bookish quality that distinguished The Chronicles of Narnia films, from its rather rudimentary special effects to the understated complexity of its characters. Fraser is from a much slicker (if not necessarily more convincing) world of make-believe, and he is anything but understated. While he is never less than an appealing screen presence, his efforts as Mo Folchart, a kind of bulked-up Indiana Jones, a specialist book binder who inexplicably seems perfectly at home with a powerful left hook, shines out like polyester among old silk.
But be that as it may, there is lots of good acting, a splendid plot and a string of mildly funny literary jokes (referencing The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan and Sinbad the Sailor) mean that there is plenty to be getting on with.
As for the story, Mo Folchart is a silvertongue, a person who is able, by reading aloud, to bring forth the characters out of stories. But there is a quid pro quo, and if something comes out of the book, something else has to go in, and Mo, accidentally bringing forth Capricorn and a crew of villains out of a fantasy novel titled “Inkheart,” loses his wife to the book. He spends many years looking for a new copy of the book and avoiding the attentions of the various characters that he inadvertently read out of “Inkheart.”
Around this conceit of how we make books come alive, director Iain Softley sets up a mood of comic adventure. There is none of the moralizing of Narnia or the philosophizing of The Golden Compass, but just a good yarn with lots of fascinating characters in it. At the center is Meggie, Mo’s daughter and companion, an aspiring writer, who only gradually realizes why her father has never read her a bedtime story though they live surround by books. Meggie’s growing realization of her father’s story and her response are reasonably compelling and are well rendered by Eliza Bennett.
The star turn is left to Andy Sirkis, who creates the Monty Python-esque villain Capricorn, the character out of a swords and sorcery fantasy who has made himself at home in Italy and doesn’t want to go back to the grotty medieval world of the novel. Paul Bettany, as the conflicted Dustfinger, once again shows what an excellent ensemble actor he is, with that special ability not only to make himself look good, but to make others shine as well.
Then there’s Helen Mirren, who has taken off her various crowns and settled down as an old-fashioned pantomime dame, playing Meggie’s aunt, a batty old bookworm who gets caught up in the adventure against her will. She gets to ride into battle on a unicorn, which is something neither of the Queen Elizabeths she recently played ever did. Jim Broadbent, also in comic mood, plays Feroglio, the author of “Inkheart,” who just loves to see his novel brought to life, but cannot quite refrain from giving away the ending — to the chagrin of the participants.
So without giving away any more of the story, Inkheart can be recommended wholeheartedly as ideal Lunar New Year viewing for the whole family. One or two sequences might be upsetting for very young children, but on the whole the mood is playful rather than frightening, and its loosely allegorical treatment of a reader’s relationship with the books gives it some depth as well.