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January 26, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | January 26, 2009 |

As I was leaving Inkheart on Saturday, trying to formulate an opinion on what I just witnessed, a mother asked her son of about eight, “Did you like it?” He kind of shrugged his shoulders. She said, “So-so?” He looked at her and said, “Meh.” From the mouths of babes, my friends, comes truth.

I’m always wary of children’s movies in general, since they tend to be giant commercials geared towards selling as many video games and plastic gewgaws in the short life span of a fragile young mind. Worse yet seem to be adaptations of popular children’s books — which end up no more than highlight reels of stuff that looks cool with digital effects. Character development and plot holes are glossed over with big shiny crapola. They presume you’ve already read the novels, and you already know the story, so you’re just here to see what sort of awesome CGI they’ll use to rig up dragons and flying shit. This is my problem with the first few Harry Potter films. While the books develop angst and suspense and fascination, the movies are more like, “Look! Quidditch! Don’t you want a flying broom! Buy my book! Magic! Buy my video game!” The issue with Inkheart is that if you want to actually have a prayer of understanding what and why the hell is happening, you need to read the young reader’s novels by Cornelia Funke. But, they’ve mauled the original story so profoundly that if you’ve read the novels, you might be appalled and mortified.

The film Inkheart tells the story of Mo Folchart (Brendan Fraser), a booksmith, who searches the globe with his daughter Meggie (Eliza Bennett) for a copy of Inkheart. When Meggie was just a baby, Mo discovered that he’s a Silvertongue, having the ability to read characters and objects in novels to life in the real world. But, as any devotee of Newton’s Laws of Thermo-dynomiiiiiite!-antics are fully aware, taking something out of the world of the book means something must be exchanged. Thus, Mo’s wife Resa finds herself trapped in the novel Inkheart, while two of the villains Basta and Capricorn and one fire juggler Dustfinger end up in our universe. Mo has devoted himself to finding a copy of the book to read his wife out of the novel. Dustfinger has vowed to force Mo to read him back into the novel so he can be reunited with his wife and children. Meanwhile, Capricorn (Andy Serkis) wants to capture Mo so he can use his Silvertongue powers to read treasures and magical items from novels at a whim.

For those of you who’ve read the novel, you may be shaking your head at some of the differences. Major, major character differences. In the novel, Mo is a bookworm, a meek character on the run from Capricorn and his men. Here, Brendan Fraser has gone from milquetoast to Powdered Toast Man. He seems to occasionally forget he’s not in the Mummy and acting like a journey-quest hero, punching bad guys before realizing, “Oops. Wrong movie. I’ll just put my hands up now.” Dustfinger in the novels is a selfish coward, full of bluster and bravado, but ultimately out only for himself. And he has no wife or children, no matter how Jennifer Connelly they are. In the movie, Bettany plays him more like a serial killer who scowls and shrieks and menaces people. Ironically, he would have been better off reprising his performance as Chaucer in A Knight’s Tale, grandstanding and being full of ego. Plus, Dustfinger’s firejuggling is just that — carnival tricks — but here he’s suddenly imbued with the ability to hurl fire like a Koopa. The novels are about people learning to be heroic, coming to terms with lies, and finding bravery in themselves. The movie is a really bad action quest, incorporating the coolness of being able to sap concepts from great literature in order to use them as weapons to battle evil.

Nevertheless, the visuals in the movie make the movie worth watching. Things look incredible. The Black Jackets, Capricorn’s henchmen, look like emo waiters, but they all have snippets of dialogue tattooed on their faces. The major henchmen Cockerell and Flatnose look like cartoon characters. They’ve forgone the tamer tomes from the novel by using flying monkeys from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the Minotaur from Greek myth. To escape from Capricorn’s old Italian keep, Silvertongue calls up the tornado that snatched Dorothy Gale as distraction. All the locations, particularly the exterior of Elinor’s house and Capricorn’s village look wonderful.

But this does not excuse the huge plot gaps and retwisting of the story, which adds nothing to the excitement and muddles the narrative so much that if you weren’t so busy gazing at all the pretty, you’d be lost. Meggie barely knew her mother, and so she’s solely devoted to Mo who’s raised her as a single parent, trying to protect her from his accidental power. In the movie, Resa becomes a much more important character, the impetus for all of Meggie and Mo’s actions. Basta looks and acts like an extra from Goodfellas, if it were done as dinner theatre in Wildwood, NJ. Elinor (Helen Mirren) has been reduced to a sassy old lady character and is written in such a way they could have left her entirely out of the plot and it would have worked just as well. Fenoglio (Jim Broadbent), the arrogant author of Inkheart, was the only part of the movie I enjoyed. Though they forego all of his grandchildren and old world Italian charm to make him more of a neurotic ex-pat in cardigans, berets, and pink scarves. Serkis’s Capricorn lacks the menace of the novel or the cartoonish glee of his fellow villains in the movie. He was woefully miscast.

There’s no excuse for letting the story get this badly off the rails. The script was written by David Lindsay-Abaire, who is one of the finest playwrights working today. Unfortunately, his talent doesn’t seem to translate to the big screen, which is a shame for anyone who was looking forward to Spider-Man 4. I blame Iain Softley the director, whose record is spotty at best. Yes, he gave us Hackers, but that was many adopted African children ago, and before he descended grandly into K-PAX mediocrity. I don’t know how much of the sticky fingerprints can be blamed on Cornelia Funke as well, whose only caveat seemed to be Brendan Fraser must play Mo. Goofy Blast from the Past Fraser would have been perfect, not “I really hate Mummies!” Fraser. My only hope was they at least let Funke gaze lovingly at him as they pulverized the ending of her story, in the name of test audience approval, with the hideous action sequence that replaced the touching bravery of the novel.

However, it’s a children’s movie, and little kids will watch pretty much anything. It’s not offensively bad enough to send people running screaming from the theatre. It would be hard to scold a film that’s central message is “Books are awesome, read more of them.” Inkheart will stick around until the next kiddie flick totters in, which thankfully is Coraline. Like closing the pages on a terrible book, it’ll all be replaced by something better.

Brian Prisco lives in a pina down by the mer-port of Burbank, by way of the cheesesteak-laden arteries of Philadelphia. When not traveling in and out of books to stay narrowly ahead of the pack of Cannonball Readers, he can be found on a Wii Fit staying narrowly ahead of a massive coronary infarction. He catches what floats down in the sewers of the comments section and burps it up for your amusement. Any and all grumblings can be directed to priscogospel at hotmail dot com. He steadfastly awaits the day when Mayor McCheese comes up for re-election so he can finally bust up the porkbellies of McTammany Hall.

Inkheart / Brian Prisco

Film | January 26, 2009 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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