Inkheart -- Film Review

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Whatever made the German novel "Inkheart" by Cornelia Funke so popular that it got translated into 37 languages is nowhere in evidence in its film version.

With a group of talented filmmakers in charge -- headed by director Iain Softley and a screenplay from Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist David Lindsay-Abaire -- "Inkheart" goes crazy with fairy tale characters popping in and out, all sorts of fantastical creatures materializing and so many rescues one loses count. Yet the movie fails to involve the key constituent: the audience.

The film, which opens today in Germany, won't be appearing in North American cinemas until January. It's hard to see how any but hard-core fans of the novel will like -- or even understand -- this movie.

The main problem is the central concept itself: There exist people called Silvertongues who, when they read from a book, somehow bring some of its characters to life. Then a real person disappears into the book. What isn't clear is why this character comes to life but not that one. Or why there is a bodily exchange with a real person. What, pray tell, does that real person do within the pages of the novel? For that matter, how can a fictional being -- a creature of the imagination who, if you think about it, must perform the same deeds over and over again whenever the book is read -- do anything in the real world?

This phenomenon seems to happen only with fantasies or fairy tells. No one brings Raskolnikov to life from "Crime and Punishment" or Daisy Buchanan from "The Great Gatsby." But Toto from "The Wizard of Oz" turns up and, boy, is that little dog confused. He isn't in Kansas or in Oz but modern-day Italy -- only it looks like a fairly tale. Growl.

Brendan Fraser play a Silvertongue who reads a book to his young daughter one night and awakens a crowd of medieval cutthroats and villains. His wife disappears into the book, the book goes missing and -- get this -- he never tells his daughter (Eliza Hope Bennett) about this. She just has one of those vanishing mothers you read about.

For years he haunts old booksellers in search of this rare volume, apparently blithely unaware of Amazon. When he finds the book, this somehow reunites him with fire juggler Dustfinger (Paul Bettany), the evil Capricorn (Andy Serkis) and his knife-flashing aide, Basta (Jamie Foreman). Everyone is acting out the book's story in the tiny Italian village where the book's author, Fenoglio (Jim Broadbent), is somehow oblivious to this miracle.

Fictional animals and monsters pop up here and there, making one very grateful nobody troubled to read "Moby Dick." The grand finale features queenly Helen Mirren riding a unicorn through a carnival-like reading designed to exorcise a dark giant from the novel.

Clearly, Softley, who has doodled with the supernatural and notions of imaginative realities in previous films, wants to test the boundary between everyday reality and realms of fiction. But the rules of engagement here are unreliable and labored. Worse, neither the story in the book nor the story in "real life" grabs a viewer. Indeed, a viewer is left wondering whether one can read a movie back into its book.
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