by Mel Valentin
The big-screen adaptation of Cornelia Funke's bestselling fantasy novel, "Inkheart" is the latest, but sadly not the last, attempt to capitalize on the big-screen success of the "Harry Potter" franchise and "The Chronicles of Narnia" series. Funke’s novel, the first in a trilogy that includes "Inkspell" and "Inkdeath," has been translated into 37 languages, practically making a big-screen adaptation inevitable. New Line Cinema, the producers of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, picked up film rights soon after "Inkheart’s" publication in 2004. New Line Cinema completed production on "Inkheart" almost two years ago and pushed back "Inkheart’s" release from March of last year to January of this year. Unfortunately, given the muddled, unfocused, and rushed result (e.g., too many ideas, too many characters, too many subplots), it’s understandable that New Line Cinema and Warner Bros., New Line Cinema’s parent company, delayed the release of "Inkheart" for so long.Adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire and directed by Iain Softley (The Skeleton Key, K-Pax, The Wings of a Dove, Hackers, Backbeat), Inkheart initially centers on Mortimer “Mo” Folchart (Brendan Fraser), a Europe-based antiquarian bookseller, and his teenage daughter, Meggie (Eliza Hope Bennett). Mo takes Meggie with him as he travels the book fair circuit searching for a long-out-of-print copy of Inkheart. The book holds the secret to returning Mo’s wife and Meggie’s missing mother, Resa (Sienna Guillory), back to them. A so-called Silvertongue, Mo can read characters from whatever book he’s reading aloud (reading silently doesn’t count) into the “real” world. Reading a character into our world, however, comes with a price: something or someone is simultaneously sent into the world of the book.
"Too muddled and unfocused for the first film in a supposed trilogy."
One night years ago, Mo read Dustfinger (Paul Bettany), a short-on-bravery fire-juggler, and Capricorn (Andy Serkis), Inkheart’s villain, into our world. Capricorn escaped into the “real” world to cause all sorts of mischief, bringing several interchangeable henchmen, Basta (Jamie Foreman), Flatnose (Steve Speirs), Fulvio (Stephen Graham), into our world with the help of a stuttering Silvertongue, Darius (John Thomson). Dustfinger desperately wants to return to the world he knew and the woman, Roxanne (Jennifer Connelly), he loves. Afraid of the potentially dangerous consequences, Mo refuses to send Dustfinger back into the book. Along the way to find another copy of Inkheart, Mo and Meggie stop to visit Meggie’s daft aunt, Elinor Loredan (Helen Mirren), at her Italian villa. Also a bibliophile, Aunt Elinor has converted her villa into a shrine for the printed word. Later still, their adventures lead them to Inkheart’s singularly named Fenolio (Jim Broadbent). Time (and apparently literary critics) haven’t been kind to Fenolio: his name, like his books, have faded into obscurity.
For a film and, presumably a novel, whose central conceit involves creativity and the imagination, Inkheart is unfortunately short on both. While Inkheart gives more than a passing nod to the bibliophile’s passion for reading and book collecting, it plods from one mundane idea to the next (e.g., characters come alive, struggle with their preordained fates, reading as an active, rather than a passive, activity), and one exposition-heavy subplot to the next. Softley and Lindsay-Abaire (and presumably Funke) had to opportunity to draw on Western myths, legends, and fairy tales (all of them copyright-free), but instead decided to include obvious nods to Rapunzel (seen briefly), a Unicorn (yes, only one), a minotaur, the Arabian Nights (through the Farid character), Little Red Riding Hood (only her hood), Peter Pan (a barely glimpsed ticking crocodile), and Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz (but only marginally). Unfortunately, everything else comes from the derivative book-within-a-book, Inkheart.Even worse, Mo is as bland a character as you’ll find in a family-oriented fantasy film this year (or any other year), the opposite of Dustfinger, the weak-willed character Mo reads into the “real” world. Dustfinger is far more active than Mo (who tends to be reactive) and, just as importantly, has a character arc of his own that’s far more moving and poignant than Mo’s. It doesn’t help that Brendan Fraser is the only American and American-accented actor in the cast (why his daughter speaks British-accented English is never explained). Fraser gives an uninspired performance to match his bland character. The other supporting actors fair better in broader roles (e.g., Helen Mirren, Jim Broadbent, Andy Serkis), but Paul Bettany stands out the most. As the desperately selfish, morally compromised Dustfinger, Bettany gives a surprisingly nuanced, understated performance. Maybe it helped that the woman Dustfinger pines for so convincingly, Bettany’s wife, Jennifer Connelly, played Roxanne.
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originally posted: 01/23/09 10:00:00