Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Even For A Kid's Movie, Inkheart Underwhelms.

The Good: Moments of character and acting, Special effects
The Bad: Pacing issues, Plot holes, Continuity/editing errors
The Basics: An imaginative concept for a fantasy movie falls flat with a lack of attention to details as Inkheart disappoints.

Note: This review was originally written after a sneak preview of “Inkheart.” I retained all of the original language of the review because this stands as something of a commemoration. A librarian who was one of the few friends I made as an adult went to the preview with me. He and I talked movies all the time and we swapped DVDs. For all of our talk of going out to movies, this remains the only one we actually made it to the theaters to see. He died rather abruptly a little over a year ago and it has taken me this long to get around to do doing some form of commemoration. Pete, you are missed!

There are remarkably few children's movies that I watch, know and love. No, far more often, I find myself cringing because the precepts of the children's movie is better than its execution. There are a few exceptions to this, of course, and in my life, I find I enjoy most the fantasy films that are toned down for children. So, for example, I am a fan of The Princess Bride, Labyrinth (reviewed here!), and I recall liking The Never-ending Story back in the day. But given a chance to attend a screening of Inkheart, I took it because it's what I do as a reviewer.

Now I remember why I so seldom take in movies like this! Inkheart is a good and interesting idea, but it is poorly presented, at least in this version. Based upon a novel (series) by Cornelia Funke and it is worth noting that I have not read the book(s), so this is a very pure review of just the movie. Directed by Iain Softley, Inkheart is an average-at-best children's movie and a thoroughly mediocre film riddled with problematic editing, interesting but derivative special effects, and acting and character development that is good, but ultimately unremarkable.

Mortimer Folchart is a silvertongue, a person born with an innate ability to make what he reads come into reality. Twelve years after discovering he has this talent - with apparently disastrous results - Mo and his daughter Meggie find themselves surviving by wandering Europe fixing books as Mo searches every bookstore he can find for a rare book. And Mo finds the book he is searching for, Inkheart, moments before he is met by Dustfinger, one of the characters from the novel Mo just acquired.

Unsurprised by Dustfinger's appearance, Mo and Meggie ditch him and escape to Italy to meet with Meggie's great aunt Eleanor, a woman obsessed with books. But Mo is tracked there and goons hired by the mysterious and dangerous Capricorn soon descend upon the manor and capture Meggie, Mo and Eleanor. Taken to Capricorn's castle, faced with a menagerie of creatures from works of fiction, Mo is forced to confess his nature and what happened to Meggie's mother, Resa. It soon becomes clear that Capricorn is as diabolical as the author originally created him to be as he wants Mo to summon an unspeakably powerful creature from Inkheart to help him take over the world!

Inkheart is established with a guiding principle very quickly: Mortimer witlessly reads books and conjures individuals from them without any conscious effort. Unfortunately for him, this "gift" does not come without a price. Resa disappears, sucked into the book Inkheart as Capricorn, Dustfinger and another goon come to life from it. We learn right away that this is the price: no one comes out of a book without someone else going in. As a result, when Mortimer is forced to read to Capricorn to materialize some treasure - and an unfortunate thief - one of Capricorn's goons is actually transported to the world of "Arabian Nights." The problem is that while the consequence is shown some of the time, it does not happen all of the times and as a result, there is a sloppy execution of this principle.

This sloppy execution works with split results. In one of the climactic scenes of the film, there is no consequence to a powerful creature - the Shadow - being summoned and that reads as ridiculous given the magnitude of it. However, it also makes one of the more predictable elements not occur. Inkheart has a second Silvertongue - a man who stutters - and as a result of Darius's speech impediment, characters he attempts to summon from books are released incomplete, often with writing on their bodies. Thus, it makes sense that Capricorn needs Mortimer. Unfortunately, there is someone of import that Darius has summoned incomplete and as the final battle raged, I waited for that person to be sucked into a book as the consequence for the Shadow's appearance. At least there was a surprise for me. Also on the unfortunate end, though, is that the resolution of one of the characters makes no real sense given that there is nothing said that would restore an incomplete character Darius summoned. Come to think of it, arguably the most significant summoning of the film is done without any apparent consequence to it.

Inkheart seems determined to survive based on the idea that - as a movie marketed toward children - it will not be viewed as strictly or seriously as other films. In addition to the lack of attention to story details, like making sure each summoning has a consequence, the editing is terrible and the special effects, while good, are thoroughly derivative. So, for example, the editing is so bad that the very first chase that occurs occurs with apparent time lapse photography. Mo pushes Dustfinger to the ground and it is day and he turns and begins to run and it is suddenly evening and when he hops in the car and drives away, it is suddenly dark night. The editing is choppy at parts and the director made a very poor choice for one of the most significant visual effects of the film.

When a Silvertongue summons a character from a book, director Softley used a bright light and blurring effect to denote the teleportation. This would be fine, save that when Dustfinger remembers his wife (who is played in a cameo by actress Jennifer Connelley) he used the exact same visual effect. As well, the final scene is presented in a washed out light much like that, adding some question of the reality of it (in context). As for the rest of the effects, they are good, but they are not anything that has not been seen before. The Shadow - which seemed reminiscent of the Nothing in The Never-ending Story - looks remarkably like a stripped down version of the Balrog from Peter Jackson's The Fellowship Of The Ring (reviewed here!). The effects are good, but they look like things we have seen elsewhere before.

That said, Inkheart deserves some praise. The concept is a good one and there are details that make the story richer, like Mo being a book doctor who uses his profession to get access to try to find a copy of Inkheart. As well, while it is obvious after the twelve years pass between the first and second scenes that something has happened to Resa, the film is quite good about taking the time to let that develop and be explained. It is well alluded to by mentions early in the movie of how Mo does not read to Meggie.

Mo and Resa have a compelling story and they work wonderfully as a couple. Dustfinger is a decent rogue whose presence in the film makes much of the action believable by establishing the concept that we are not all trapped with our initial characterization. Dustfinger grows past his established knavish nature. His arc is compelling and emotional. Unfortunately for Inkheart, it is hampered by a monolithic villain - Capricorn is hardly menacing or even a full step ahead of the heroes, a largely unnecessary character - Eleanor becomes a point of exposition which is unnecessary - and characters who are not nearly as smart as the audience.

This is most notable in the character of Meggie, which I suppose is understandable, because she is a child. However, faced with the knowledge that she will be asked to bring an unspeakable evil into the film, none of the characters suggest that she go along with it and screw it up purposely. Almost all of Capricorn's goons are defective, walking around, addle brained with writing upon them. They are hardly effective or impressive. All Meggie had to do to bugger Capricorn's plans was to seriously stutter and it becomes a giant creature that is hampered by its own body.

One hopes that the book addressed this better than the film. And while the characters are decent or mediocre, the acting works fairly well to embody those characters. Helen Mirren, for example, plays Eleanor quite differently from how she portrayed the title character in The Queen. Young Eliza Bennett holds her own with Mirren and lead Brandon Fraser, as well as with Andy Serkis doing his villainous best as Capricorn.

And while it would seem like Brandon Fraser would be responsible for holding together Inkheart, he shows up and performs well, but it is Paul Bettany who steals the show. As Dustfinger, Bettany energizes every scene he is in and he has the most compelling range of emotions to work from as his character goes from desperate to fearful to resigned. Bettany plays each emotion with a real resonance that makes it clear his character is conflicted internally, even from the very beginning.

Still, Bettany's acting is not enough to put this average-at-best film over the top. It is slow to start and nothing pops as well as it ought to in a fantasy film in this one. For the kids, there are some classics worth revisiting before taking this one in.

For other works featuring Paul Bettany, please be sure to check out my reviews of:
The Tourist
Iron Man 2
Iron Man
A Beautiful Mind


For other movie reviews, please be sure to visit my Movies Index Page!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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