Built on a wispy premise better suited to the realm of TV, “The Pagemaster” plays like a slickly produced afternoon special and should be limited in its appeal to the youngest of kids. Macaulay Culkin in an animated fantasy should be some kind of box office draw, but probably not a major hit, with much of the “Barney” crowd more likely to check it out on homevideo.
More than anything else, “Pagemaster” comes off as propaganda for the public library, with even its most hummable song providing a pro-social message about reading and using one’s imagination.
The simplest of childhood fantasies, the story begins in the world of live action before our chronically frightened hero, Richard (Culkin), with the help of a mysterious librarian (Christopher Lloyd), gets transported into an animated world where fictional characters come to life — led on his journey by book-sized companions Adventure (voiced by Patrick Stewart), Fantasy (Whoopi Goldberg) and Horror (Frank Welker).
Through the world of books, Richard encounters an array of famous fictional characters and perils while trying to make it to the “Exit” sign, which will provide his means of escape.
The problem is that after introducing these characters — Captain Ahab, Long John Silver, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, etc. — the filmmakers don’t have anything creative or special to do with them, other than the sort of madcap chase with Mr. Hyde that feels plucked from an old Bugs Bunny cartoon.
A more inspired moment has Richard using a book, “Jack and the Beanstalk,” to escape from the belly of a dragon. Unfortunately, such moments are few and far between.
Producer and co-writer David Kirschner (sharing the latter chore with David Casci and Ernie Contreras), whose credits include “An American Tail,” has made a reasonably diverting confection for children — with a fre-netic pace and plenty of visual stimuli — whose principal appeal for adults will be its abbreviated running time.
Technically, the animation, overseen by one-time Disney animator Maurice Hunt (“The Black Cauldron”), is fluid if perhaps a bit too dark and brooding, though it does offer some impressive flourishes to go with James Horner’s typically rousing score.
Straying from the “Star Trek” bridge, Stewart hams it up regally as Adventure , while appearances by the live-action performers are extremely brief.
As for Culkin, if he’s still looking for a vehicle to prove his drawing power outside of “Home Alone,” this probably isn’t it, though rest easy: Another Mac attack — Warner Bros.’ “Richie Rich”– is just around the corner.