From the Friday, Jan. 23 Oregonian....
"Inkheart" takes a great idea and then refuses to do much with that idea -- including, I'm afraid, explaining it clearly to the audience.
The premise -- adapted from the first book in Cornelia Funke's fantasy trilogy for kids -- is a corker: What if there were magically endowed people called "Silvertongues" who could literally bring books to life, "Jumanji"-style, simply by reading them out loud?
Like the best fantasy ideas, it's simple, but it opens up a universe of possibilities. You can imagine Silvertongues using their power for selfish ends. You can imagine the complicated philosophical questions a character from a novel might have for its author after being brought to life by a Silvertongue's words. Ms. Funke adds an interesting wrinkle (maybe one wrinkle too many) to her premise by also declaring that when a Silvertongue "reads someone out" of a book, someone in the real world gets "read into" the same story. For example, if Dorothy materializes in our world out of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," some unlucky flesh-and-blood schmuck suddenly finds himself in Kansas, fleeing a tornado. Does that mean the story itself is rewritten by the Silvertongue during the act of reading? (And if so, does the Silvertongue get royalties?)
The movie raises these questions and many more. Unfortunately -- in a move that kind of had me tearing out my hair toward the end -- the movie doesn't always bother to answer those questions. The resulting ambiguity isn't compelling -- it creates a lack of internal logic. And it makes a fairly charming, well-acted, easygoing little fantasy flick more than a little aggravating at times.
Anyway. The story: A Silvertongue named Mortimer (Brendan Fraser) and his gifted daughter Meggie (Eliza Bennett) have been on the run for over a decade. It seems that before Mortimer understood his power, he brought a medieval bad guy (Andy Serkis), a weak-willed flamethrower (Paul Bettany) and other punks of varying roguery into our world out of a fantasy novel called "Inkheart." In the process, Mortimer accidentally trapped his wife (Sienna Guillory) inside the book.
Our hero has been traveling the world ever since -- hiding from the book's evil characters and searching for another copy of the out-of-print "Inkheart" so he can read his sweetie back into our world.
It's a perfectly serviceable fantasy story hook -- even if it's nakedly playing for the elusive "Harry Potter" dollar -- and I can only get so mad at any movie that extols the magic of reading. (This flick has a moral similar to that of "The Neverending Story": Become literate and get revenge.) But you can already see the film starting to become a nitpicker's paradise, because apparently it never once occurred to Mortimer in over a decade to check eBay or call the book's author (Jim Broadbent), who seems willing to believe in Silvertongues based on the scantest of evidence.
And that’s just the first of many questions the filmmakers raise and absolutely fail to answer:
2. Why do Silvertongues magically transport flesh-and-blood people into books only some of the time?
3. Serkis' villain employs a stuttering Silvertongue who reads money and monsters out of books for Serkis. Many of Serkis' henchmen find themselves trapped inside famous books as a result of the aforementioned real-world/novel switcheroo. Why would the remaining henchmen keep following a guy who does that to them?
4. Again: Are the books rewritten when characters appear in our world or aren't they?
5. Under what conditions, precisely, can a Silvertongue rewrite a story? Does the author have to do the rewriting? Can the Silvertongue just read any old set of words aloud and change reality?
6. How on earth could Mortimer go so far into adulthood without knowing he had this gift? Wouldn't someone have noticed the first time he tried to read an eye chart and was suddenly surrounded by a pile of block letters?
I could go on and on. I know it sounds like nitpicking, but it isn't: These questions are fundamental to major story developments, and leaving them unanswered makes for confused viewing. It's as if the producers threw up their hands at some point and said, "Who cares? It's just a fantasy for kids" -- ignoring the simple fact that making rules and sticking to them is as important in defining a fantasy universe as it is when you're defining traffic laws.
The actors are mostly charming; Bettany in particular is broody and cool, and I enjoyed watching him struggle with the notion of free will after he (literally) meets his maker. There are a few neat visual beats and some clever character bits. It's funny when Mortimer's aunt (Helen Mirren) calls Serkis a "barbaric piece of pulp fiction." But all that good stuff is so much flailing around, because it takes place in a formless, lawless, structureless void.
C; 106 minutes; rated PG for fantasy adventure action, some scary moments and brief language.
'Inkheart' (The Oregonian, Jan. 23, 2009)