Can someone explain to me how Brendan Fraser keeps getting work? With the exception of 1998’s Gods and Monsters— and, possibly, Looney Tunes: Back in Action—Fraser has exhibited an onscreen presence and personality that are marginally more appealing than a block of wood. So his casting as Lead Parent in Inkheart—an already low-profile family flick—didn’t make the film look terribly promising.
Turns out, though, that Fraser was actually hand-picked by Cornelia Funke, the author whose book series the film is based on and who even dedicated its second volume, Inkspell, to him. Bad taste aside, Funke has been called “the German J.K. Rowling” and has spun a lovely tale that’s well-suited to the screen, if ill-timed: With The Golden Compass landing with a relative thud in December 2007 and even the Chronicles of Narnia franchise now in jeopardy, it seems as if the bubble for fantasy films has burst, with none of them able to compete in terms of quality or popularity with Rowling’s Harry Potter tentpoles.
The good news is that if you can ignore Fraser and his trademark lumpishness, Inkheart (adapted by playwright David Lindsay-Abaire and directed by Iain Softely) is imaginative and entertaining, an unquestionably better choice to distract the kids with than the surprisingly unadorable Hotel for Dogs. (Especially if they’re readers. Kids still like books, don’t they? Hello?) Fraser plays Mo, a “silvertongue” with the ability to bring literary characters to life when he reads. But the gift comes with a big asterisk: Whenever a fictional person pops out of a book, a real one is pulled in. It’s how Mo lost his wife, Resa (Sienna Guillory), though he initially doesn’t admit this to his daughter, Meggie (Eliza Bennett), or Meggie’s great-aunt, Elinor (Helen Mirren), instead claiming that Resa abandoned them. (Good call—no emotional scarring there!)
Mo also doesn’t tell Meggie that the reason they hop nomadically around Europe is because he’s trying to find Inkheart, the rare medieval book Resa got sucked into, and also to escape its newly breathing characters who are dogging Mo to exercise his talents towards the characters’ own wicked ends. Eventually, of course, they catch up to the family, destroying Elinor’s beloved library and holding Meggie hostage until certain demands are met: Capricorn (Andy Serkis), a villain who has managed to build an empire in the human world, wants the rest of Inkheart’s evil minions to join him, while Dustfinger (Paul Bettany), a fire juggler, just wants Mo to read him back to his family. Resa, meanwhile, remains in the bookish realm, voiceless and enslaved by Capricorn.
Once Inkheart’s arc has crested, things get a little tiresome—the escapes, chases, and seat-of-the-pants strategizing are unremarkable, a bit too much filler to carry us to the surely happy ending. Like last year’s Bridge to Terabithia, however, the film’s sense of otherworldly wonder turns it into a small pleasure: The wistfulness in Elinor’s voice when she looks around her library and tells Meggie that she’s traveled the world but “never had to leave this room”; the bliss on the face of Inkheart’s author, Fenoglio (Jim Broadbent), when he first sees Dustfinger and says, “That is exactly how I imagined him!” It’s both creepy and cool to hear a chorus of whispers emanating from a shelf of books or see flying monkeys brought to life. You may also find amusing the fact that Fraser is inexplicably the only member of his family without an English accent. (Giving another level of meaning to Elinor’s incredulous, “Your voice brought them out of the book?”)
One interesting crumb of an idea that goes unexplored is the burden of knowing one’s destiny. At one point, Dustfinger, realizing that his story must come to an end and presuming that it’s not a good one, questions whether he actually wants to reenter Inkheart. His eventual insistence to Fenoglio that he’s in charge of his own fate at first seems pigheaded but finds an echo in the film’s resolution. In this sense, Inkheart diverges from Terabithia, sugarcoating the reality of death—or any undesirable outcome—as quickly as it’s mentioned. But not every movie’s required to be steeped in messages, and this one’s predominant theme that reading can be rewarding is plenty to elevate it above other empty-calorie kids’ flicks.