Books are essential; movies based on books, not so much — this is the lesson imparted by “Inkheart,” a brisk, overstuffed adaptation of Cornelia Funke’s international bestseller. Despite abundant talent on both sides of the camera and a bevy of eye-catching supernatural beasties, this f/x-heavy story of a literature-loving father and daughter battling dark forces unleashed from the pages of a rare tome doesn’t conjure much in the way of bigscreen magic. Delayed nearly a year by New Line, the now-Warner Bros. release opens Jan. 23 Stateside following its Dec. 11 bow in Europe, where commercial prospects look strongest.
Published to great success in 2003 in Germany, where the prolific Funke has been likened to J.K. Rowling, “Inkheart” is the first installment of a fantasy trilogy concerning the adventures of bookbinder Mortimer “Mo” Folchart (played in the film by Brendan Fraser) and his 12-year-old daughter, Meggie (Eliza Hope Bennett), a voracious reader. As revealed in the film’s prologue, Mo is a Silvertongue, a person with the rare ability to bring the characters in a book to life simply by reading the text aloud.
Meggie initially knows nothing of her dad’s extraordinary gift. But when a trip to an antique bookshop in Italy leads to a fateful run-in with Dustfinger (Paul Bettany, longhaired and unkempt), a self-proclaimed “fire-juggler,” the truth emerges in flashback: Years earlier, when Meggie was a wee girl, Mo cracked open a novel (titled, incidentally, “Inkheart”) and not only brought Dustfinger and other fictional characters out of it but also accidentally banished Meggie’s mother into it. Mo vowed never to use his gift again (“I don’t read aloud anymore,” Fraser says with a straight face) and has since searched tirelessly for his wife, seeking a copy of the elusive novel into which she disappeared.
Back in the present, father and daughter flee to the posh estate of Meggie’s prim great-aunt, Elinor (Helen Mirren, carping at everyone in sight). But there’s no escaping Dustfinger — or, even worse, the megalomaniacal Capricorn (Andy Serkis, ghoulish and bald), another refugee who wants to exploit the Silvertongue’s talent and bring forth more evil into the human world.
That’s an awful lot of fantastical mythology for a 105-minute movie, and one of the film’s major flaws is that the characters seem to accept the rules much more quickly than the viewer will. Working from a busy, tightly compressed script by playwright David Lindsay-Abaire (his second screenplay, after “Robots”), director Iain Softley seems more interested in ushering his characters from point A to point B (as they dash breathlessly around a scenic Italian Riviera where, curiously, no one speaks Italian) than in fostering emotional engagement and that all-important sense of wonder.
Considering how impressively the helmer molded a much denser piece of literature, Henry James’ “The Wings of the Dove,” into his elegant and passionate 1997 film adaptation, it’s disappointing that “Inkheart” has no feel — and, it seems, no time — for the lingering, resonant detail. Not every fantasy film needs to be “The Lord of the Rings,” but the involvement of New Line and the presence of Serkis, Peter Jackson’s main muse, can’t help but drive home the comparison.
Cheeky visual references to classic children’s books — the flying monkeys from “The Wizard of Oz” and the ticking croc from “Peter Pan” are among the creatures shown here — keep the pic sporadically engaging and underscore its reverential attitude toward literature. Visually, the film is impressively crafted in all respects, with lush widescreen views of coastal Italy and splendid palatial interiors by set designer-decorator Niamh Coulter and production designer John Beard.
The sole American in a cast of mostly British thesps, Fraser doesn’t vary his game much, essentially reacting to elaborate special effects as he did in “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and “The Mummy” movies. Bennett is spirited and watchable as a girl who must ultimately draw on her own imaginative power to save the day, and Jim Broadbent is in reliable fuddy-duddy form as Fenoglio, the author of the novel within the novel.
If there are any further cinematic adventures of Mo and Meggie, the filmmakers will have some serious explaining to do, given how tidily “Inkheart” dispels the questions and cliffhangers left unresolved at the end of the novel. It’s a perfunctory wrap-up to a film that, unlike its assorted characters and critters, never manages to break free of the page.