"Look to the books!"—The Pagemaster
The Pagemaster really isn't much more than an extended public service announcement or a big-screen After School Special promoting the merits of libraries and classic literature. But how much can one complain about a cartoon that encourages children to read?
Facts of the Case
Young Richard Tyler (former über-childstar and current ex-Mr. Rachel Miner, Macaulay Culkin), a panophobic, spends his days annoying the crap out his parents (Ed Begley, Jr. and Mel Harris) by quoting all manner of statistics regarding probabilities of being hit by a car, struck by lightning, or dying in a freak household accident—he apparently hasn't crunched numbers on his likelihood of dying at the hands of parents fed up with his wussy nerdiness.
Despite feelings of foreboding, Richard takes on the assignment of running to the local hardware store to buy nails so his dad can finish building a treehouse Richard has no intention of ever climbing into. Caught in a sudden and violent summer storm, the boy seeks refuge in a library run by Mr. Dewey (Christopher Lloyd, Star Trek III: The Search For Spock), a guy who acts as though the last time a patron wandered into the dusty old place was during the Truman administration.
Looking for a pay-phone, Richard slips on a wet floor, bumps his head à la Dorothy Gale, and ends up in cartoon-land. There he meets three animated books, Adventure (Patrick Stewart, Star Trek: The Next Generation), Fantasy (Whoopi Goldberg, recurring guest star on Star Trek: TNG), and Horror (Frank Welker, the voice of Fred Jones in Scooby Doo, Where Are You?, who also provided Spock's scream in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock), who guide him through encounters with literary characters like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Leonard Nimoy of Star Trek: The Previous Generation), Moby Dick, and Captain Ahab (George Hearn, who played Dr. Berel in the "First Contact" episode of Star Trek: TNG), Long John Silver from Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island and, finally, a fire-breathing dragon whose connection to anything literary is left unestablished (maybe they couldn't get the rights to The Hobbit or Beowulf). With the help of his three friends, and guidance from the Pagemaster (also played by Lloyd), the kid must find his way to the library's exit.
Through his adventure, Richard finds courage he can apply to life in the real world.
The moral of The Pagemaster is that interacting with great literature provides us with invaluable tools we can utilize in our everyday lives. Or, maybe it's that if you ever find yourself in a library, locating the exit as quickly as you can is essential to your survival. I'm pretty sure it's the first one.
Let's get down to brass tacks: aside from its function as a side gig for actors on hiatus from their near-continuous work adding to the massive and ever-expanding Star Trek franchise [Editor's Note: Even Ed Begley Jr. isn't immune—he guest-spotted on Voyager.], is The Pagemaster a flick kiddies will enjoy? Sure. Its 75-minute running time is composed of about 15 total minutes of live-action bookends (directed by Joe Johnston, Jurassic Park III) between which is about an hour of animated adventure (directed by Maurice Hunt, for whom The Pagemaster is the only credit listed in IMDb—I know this flick bombed at the box office, but ouch!). The quality of the animation isn't quite up to Disney standards, but it's strong nonetheless. Fox, after all, has put together a solid little catalogue of well-animated films in recent years, such as Anastasia and Titan A.E..
If the movie has any major problem, it's that it tries to do too much. This seems to be a common thread with children's films. It's like the filmmakers come up with a good story, then realize if they can't find a way to squeeze it into 80 or so minutes, they'll tax the attention span of their key demographic, so they butcher the thing. The Dr. Jekyl stuff, in particular, seems either tacked on or heavily excised in order to reduce the film's length (maybe it was only thrown in because rights to Robert Louis Stevenson's works were going for cheap). That's the only major flaw, and it's not going to be noticed by kids.
I do have a couple nit-picks. First, Culkin does the Home Alone-aftershave-scream-of-hilarity™ somewhere in the neighborhood of 873 times during the course of the film. I'm pretty sure the animation hadn't even kicked in yet before I started musing cynical about how they were doing this purposely, making this poor kid do the same stupid joke over and over. Nit-pick number two is Whoopi Goldberg. Her performance as Fantasy isn't a performance; it's just the same, tired sassy-woman type she's played in about every movie she's been in with the exception of The Color Purple. Yechh. I guess if you like that whole shtick, it won't be a problem. With the exception of Whoopi's performance, though, The Pagemaster doesn't make the Disney mistake of hiring big stars to play themselves and goof around. Patrick Stewart is great in the film, precisely because he isn't Patrick Stewart or Captain Picard—he approaches the role like an honest-to-goodness voice actor, bringing a unique character to life. His voice is recognizable because it's so distinctive, but I never found myself sitting there imagining Stewart while I was watching the animated character. The remainder of the voice-actors are just that, individuals like Welker with extensive experience providing voices for animated features and TV shows.
Fox brings The Pagemaster to DVD in both 1.85:1 anamorphic and full screen transfers, each presented with the same set of extras on opposing sides of a single-layer dual-sided disc. Kudos to Fox! Why can't all studios who release children's titles do this? (Disney's excuse, by the way, is that small children can't figure out which side of a dual-sided disc has which transfer of the film—should pre-literate children be operating DVD players?) The quality of both transfers is strong (though I'll admit to only watching a sampling of the full screen version). I saw no signs of edge enhancement or other digital artifacts on my display. Flesh-tones were solid and natural in the live-action footage and colors deep and rich in the animation. There is a sheen of very fine grain in the animated portions of the film, but it appears to originate with the source material. The film was animated almost entirely old-school, utilizing hand-drawn images and minimal computer animation, resulting in the very slight film grain. It's not at all distracting. The heaviest grain appears during a storm sequence that links the Moby Dick and Long John Silver vignettes and appears intentional, used to create the dark and murky ambience of a storm at sea.
Audio is presented in a decent Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix. Surrounds are used creatively, without a lot of razzmatazz. The rear soundstage gets the most play from the film's score as well as from sequences like the storm mentioned above. For the most part, the 5.1 mix envelops you in the soundtrack much more than the 2.0 surround mixes, while avoiding overly-showy pans from speaker to speaker. The case is incorrectly labeled on two fronts: while it claims both English and Spanish subtitles, there are only English; on the other hand, it lists only English and French soundtracks but there is also a Spanish track in Dolby Digital 2.0 surround.
The disc is almost barebones, offering only a couple extras. There's a 23-minute making-of documentary hosted by Lloyd in the role of Mr. Dewey and very accessible to children. It actually provides a fairly detailed breakdown of the entire animation process, from recording the voice performances, to the initial pencil drawings, to inking the final cells. It's entertaining enough to hold the interest of little ones and interesting enough to keep adults engaged. I'm sure, based on Culkin's involvement, Fox expected The Pagemaster to be a huge hit and it makes me wonder if Making The Pagemaster wasn't originally a half-hour network television promo special—it's got that feel about it.
Rounding things out are two theatrical trailers, one in full screen and another, oddly enough, presented 2.35:1. Plus, a music video for the syrupy ballad "Dream Away," performed by Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds and Lisa Stansfield (of early-'90s mega-hit "All Around the World"-fame).
If nothing else, The Pagemaster DVD makes a fairly fascinating case study of a movie that was carefully designed and marketed to be a box office smash and ended up a big, fat dud.
Widely available for under 20 bucks both online and at your local retailer, The Pagemaster is decent entertainment for kids. It ain't The Lion King, but it's still slightly above-average children's fare.
Case dismissed. The Pagemaster is free to go.
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