By Christy Lemire
HOLLYWOOD — Whimsy shouldn’t be overwhelming. It shouldn’t be a busy, messy cacophony. By definition, there should be something delicate about it. Charming, even.
“Inkheart” has long since slammed the book shut on that concept, with director Iain Softley cramming in more literary characters and mystical creatures than would seem humanly possible.
The mythology here, taken from the best-selling novel by Cornelia Funke, is mind-bogglingly dense and, often, illogical. Maybe it worked better on the page; on the screen, from a script by Pulitzer-winner David Lindsay-Abaire, it feels like an onslaught.
Brendan Fraser brings his typically stoic demeanor to the role of Mortimer “Mo” Folchart, a bookbinder who’s been trolling secondhand stores for years looking for the medieval adventure saga “Inkheart” in hopes of righting a wrong. (Because going online, ordering it from Amazon and then waiting a few days for it to arrive wouldn’t have made any sense.)
You see, Mo has an unfortunate gift: He’s a “Silvertongue.” That means when he reads a book out loud, its characters literally come to life in the real world. Like, they just pop up out of nowhere. But somehow, when he read “Inkheart,” his wife Resa got sucked into its pages, and in his place, the firejuggler Dustfinger (Paul Bettany) arrived. This is something Mo has never told his 12-year-old daughter, Meggie (Eliza Hope Bennett); despite being a bright, inquisitive young lady, she’s unquestioningly been functioning under the false impression that mom just took off when she was an infant. Dad’s never told her the truth — until now. ’Cause that’s good parenting.
Anyway, Mo wants to read Resa back into reality, but the other “Inkheart” characters, led by a snarling Andy Serkis as the villainous Capricorn, quite like it out here and don’t want to return to the book. Which raises the question: If you read somebody out of a book, aren’t they out for all of eternity, therefore preventing future readers from enjoying their stories? And if regular people conversely get dragged into those pages, what do they do all day? Just a couple elements that distractingly make no sense.
The presence of esteemed actors like Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent briefly livens up these confusing proceedings, but mostly it’s just embarrassing watching them lower themselves into such a ridiculous scenario. Mirren, as Meggie’s wealthy great-aunt Elinor, has a regal curtness that’s amusing, but watching her gallop in on a unicorn during the movie’s bombastic climax is just cringeworthy. Broadbent, meanwhile, wrings a couple of laughs out of playing the pompous “Inkheart” author, who’s amazed to see his characters anachronistically running around an Italian village.
Meggie, who unknowingly has inherited her father’s ability, finds herself summoning Toto from “The Wizard of Oz” and Cinderella’s glass slipper. Ultimately, though, she must draw out the demon from “Inkheart,” a giant monster known as The Shadow, in a final showdown. The creature is a chintzy-looking swirl of smoke and ash, one of many special effects that aren’t terribly special — simply more sound and fury, signifying nothing.
“Inkheart,” a New Line Cinema release, is rated PG for fantasy adventure action, some scary moments and brief language. Running time: 106 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.