Film Review: Inkheart

Cobbled-together fantasy about a dad who can “read” characters in and out of books.

To literally be absorbed by a book, and to meld an imagined world with reality, has been explored many times before, an expression of the awe and fear we have of our own creations. The children’s fantasy Inkheart borrows most closely from the boy-sucked-into-book film The Neverending Story, with elements of Jumanji, Stranger Than Fiction, and fractured fairy tales Shrek and The Princess Bride thrown in. While Inkheart has some compelling moments, its world incorporates so many sources—modern and medieval, fairy tale and fact—that it fails to create the fully developed world you could imagine being dropped into yourself.

Mortimer (Brendan Fraser) has a special gift: When he reads a book, the world rumbles a bit, and out pops a character or item from the tale. He can’t simply pull characters out at will: There’s a level of uncertainty to what will appear, and “reading out” a character means a person in this world will find herself trapped in the book. Mortimer discovered his gift while reading to his daughter (Eliza Bennett), unleashing a horde of bandits and trapping his wife in the tale called Inkheart.

For every nuanced detail or joyful “what if” in the fantasy, there are gaps and failures in execution that make Inkheart decidedly half-baked. Why does Mortimer have an English-accented daughter and great aunt, but speak with an American accent? If the great dilemma is that bringing a character out of a book requires that another be forced into it, why is this abandoned at opportune moments? In another inconsistency, the narrative takes pains to find the author of Inkheart—as if he will be the only one able to rewrite it—then makes it possible for any character to change key passages.

The weaknesses in plotting are exacerbated by the meaningless rearrangements in fortune the film insists on making. The heroes expertly tiptoe around a castle, then let themselves get caught at the end of a scene. Characters are separated for no better reason than to engineer a reconciliation. It’s a problem of plot, a problem of direction, and a problem of acting.

Then Helen Mirren appears. She invigorates the film in her intermittent appearances as the great aunt, a neurotic but bossy shut-in who lives through books. Even a hokey green-screen scene of her coming to the rescue via motorcycle is redeemed by her blustering screeches and chic modeling of motorcycle gear.

Perhaps the holes in the plot wouldn’t be so bothersome if one’s eyes could focus on the intricate visual splendor characteristic of fantasies, but Inkheart also suffers from inconsistent production design. A Harry Potter, for example, keeps its non-magical world drab and Hogwarts lush, but Inkheart doesn’t effectively utilize its production design or makeup to demarcate its worlds. Other movies may have effectively placed machine guns in fairy-tale castles, but Inkheart is not one of them.

Even in this only partially realized film, there are details evocative of what could have been. Certain characters pulled from books fall out tattooed with the monastically scripted passages that brought them there, a makeup detail that provides unique visual shorthand. Favorite storybook figures Toto, Rapunzel, Ali Baba, the Minotaur and a ticking crocodile all make appearances, but seeing these fully formed characters in action only makes the protagonists of Inkheart pale in comparison.

Director Iain Softley makes his mark in the film’s many flashbacks, quickly cueing moments of wistfulness or resolve, a skill he utilized in 2005’s The Skeleton Key. Fans of Brendan Fraser’s Mummy series will find a less precise fantasy than those films’ rich Egypt backdrop, and a story more appropriate for the elementary-school set, especially on a rainy or snowy day.