Judge Gordon Sullivan brings DVD reviews to life. Watch out when he's reviewing Friday the 13th.
Our review of Inkheart, published June 29th, 2009, is also available.
Every story ever written is just waiting to become real.
There is a trope among readers of "falling into a good book" that has maintained prominence for generations because most of us literary types approach many books to escape from our regular life into the fantastic worlds created by our favorite authors. In her Inkheart series, Cornelia Funke upends this common idea and instead has her characters read books only to have their elements fall into our world. Thus, she gets to introduce classic literary characters next to her own creations. It gets complicated because we watch a movie called Inkheart which appears to take place in the real world where the characters read a book (also called Inkheart) and introduce new characters from that book into the "real" world. Luckily, what reads so confusingly here is actually an easy-to-follow romp through literary fantasy with an all-star cast and an impressive set of effects.
Facts of the Case
Mo Folchart (Brendan Fraser, The Mummy) is a "silvertongue," someone who has the power to "read" characters out of books. Sadly, he learns of his power too late, after he has already read several nasty characters out of an obscure fantasy novel, Inkheart. Nothing, however, is free, and in exchange for the characters he took out of the book, his wife is transported to the land of Inkheart. The main baddy, Capricorn (Andy Serkis, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring), makes a break for it, and sets up shop in the wilds of Italy. For the next decade, Mo takes his daughter (Eliza Bennett, Nanny McPhee) from antiquarian bookstore to antiquarian bookstore searching for a rare copy of Inkheart so that he can read his wife out of the book. Finally, one of the characters he released, Dustfinger (Paul Bettany, A Beautiful Mind), catches up Mo just as he finds the book. When Mo refuses to help him, Dustfinger is forced to turn to Capricorn, and Mo and his daughter are caught up in the struggle to rule both our world and that of Inkheart.
Although Inkheart won't be joining the ranks of classic children's cinema anytime soon, it is a fun fantasy movie that has a lot going for it. Specifically, the premise, effects, and actors are all fantastic.
Most people who read long enough fall in love with a particular character, whether it's Dorothy Gale as a youngster, the ever-popular Harry Potter, or, as one gets older, a more mature figure like Sherlock Holmes or Jason Bourne. It's only a small leap from this love to imagining being able to pull your favorite character out of a book and showing them around our world. The stakes are upped by the fact that it's not a simple operation, but an exchange of something or someone from our world for something or someone in the world of the book. This gives "silvertongues" an awesome responsibility, but it also makes the combinations of characters endless. They could put Peter Pan and Captain Ahab on the deck of a spaceship together with the right order of reading. Nothing quite this outlandish happens in the film, but we do get some flying monkeys (courtesy of The Wizard of Oz), a ticking alligator (courtesy of Peter Pan), and a minotaur (courtesy of Greek mythology).
Luckily, all the fantasy elements are rendered with surprising detail and subtlety. The attention to detail keeps believability (including a rather wonderful twister from The Wizard of Oz used as a distraction) very strong without sacrificing the fantastic aspects of the story. More impressive to me, however, is that despite the huge palette the creative team had to draw on, it never feels like the effects are driving the film. Instead, they serve the story for the vast majority of the film. During the climax there are a few moments of rousing CGI, but for the most part it is fairly invisible. For instance, Dustfinger is a fire juggler, and there are numerous instances of him manipulating fire (a difficult element to generate a composite), but it never feels like the director is showing off the technology. This wins the film a little place in my heart after years of CGI-based spectacle films.
Finally, the story and effects are supported by a stellar cast. Brendan Fraser isn't my favorite actor, but he excels at these slightly hammy adventure roles, and Inkheart is no exception. If you're not a fan of Fraser, there's Paul Bettany to admire, and his Dustfinger is appropriately brooding. Jim Broadbent is funny as the slightly daffy author of Inkheart, while Helen Mirren goes gung-ho as Mo's rich aunt. Andy Serkis brings the creepy as the malevolent Capricorn, and young actress Eliza Bennett manages to be endearing without being obnoxious.
On the Blu-ray side of things, Inkheart is fairly impressive. The 2:40:1 widescreen frame is compressed with the VC-1 codec, and there are some excellent moments of detail and saturation, although there is a slightly muted quality to much of the film that is probably intentional. The surround audio offers are both excellent, with effective separation and easily audible dialogue. The bottom end was especially impressive, with a strong booming quality.
The only place that the disc doesn't excel are the extras. There are some additional scenes, a reading from the novel by Eliza Bennett, a strange game where the cast and filmmakers each add a sentence to an evolving story, and a featurette on the writing process. They're cute, but hardly comprehensive. I was, however, impressed because in addition to the Blu-ray disc, there's the (now) standard digital copy, but on the disc with the digital copy is a DVD version of the film, so it's possible to loan this release to non-Blu-ray equipped friends and relations. Thankfully it's a digital copy I can actually use.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I didn't realize until I'd seen Inkheart twice (once in the theaters and once for this review) that the film didn't connect with viewers at the box office. I freely admit that I didn't enjoy the film all that much on the first viewing, but by the second I had come around to the film's charms. That doesn't mean, however, that the film is perfect. The big strike against it is that beyond the premise, it's really not new; it doesn't raise the bar even slightly in the fantasy genre. That's not necessarily a problem, but lots of viewers seem to expect every fantasy film to be a seismic event (I blame Harry Potter for this). The other big problem is that the film has an odd structure, where characters go back and forth from Capricorn's castle, and it can be frustrating on first viewing to untangle some of the character motivations and narrative switchbacks.
With this well-presented Blu-ray, hopefully Inkheart will find a place in the hearts of viewers. Although it doesn't raise the bar for fantasy fans, it's an intriguing story that has enough acting talent and well-done CGI that it's at least worth a rental for those who enjoy a good book.
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