Movie for Hungover Middle School English Teachers
Starring: Brendan Fraser, Eliza Bennett, Paul Bettany
By Andy Younger
“Reading is sometimes an ingenious device for avoiding thought.” –19th century essayist Sir Arthur Helps.
Adapted from the German novel of the same name, Inkheart is a Scholastic Book Fair of YA fantasy retreads cobbled together with winking references to classic stories in lieu of talent or originality. With dialogue as clunky as its title, the film opens with 3rd person omniscient narration that states that some storytellers are capable of bringing stories to life—literally. One of these storytellers, or ‘silvertongues’ to use proper terminology, is the vacuous, gaping maw of Mo Folchart (Brendan Fraser). After this charming preface, the viewer is treated to a mind-numbing first act while waiting for the characters to realize that which has already been explained.
With his twelve-year old daughter, Meggie (Eliza Bennett), in tow, Mo scours a generic European village for a generic European antique bookstore. In a delicious bit of postmodern interreferentiality, Mo finds a book by the title of Inkheart. The film is based on a book titled Inkheart and here, within that film, is a book titled Inkheart. The metaphysical ramifications are staggering! But I digress—nine years prior, the silvertongue read aloud from Inkheart only to bring to life the villains of the book and transport his wife—per some nonsensical quid pro quo—into the pages of the book. Hence the scouring.
Meanwhile, during that nine year timespan, head villain Capricorn (actor and part-time Gollum Andy Serkis performing his best Lord Voldemort impersonation) has assembled a platoon of stormtroopers in his Eagle’s Nest to seek out and burn copies of Inkheart—leaving him with the sole copy. Considering the fact that this is a German story, it is provocative that director Iian Softley chose to film these scenes like a Leni Riefenstahl documentary—incorporating grainy black and white footage of Capricorn speaking against flowing banners and regimented troops. Capricorn’s Triumph of the Will involves capturing Mo, the only known silvertongue without a speech impediment, so that he can bring to life the soul-devouring, ashen monster known as The Shadow. No motivation is demanded nor given.
Caught in the crossfire between Mo and Capricorn is a fire-breathing family man named Dustfingers (played by The Da Vinci Code’s Paul Bettany). Desperate to return to the world of Inkheart, Dustfingers picks a fight with Mo only to result in two grown men delivering lines such as, “I don’t read aloud anymore” with full gravitas. Naturally, in the process, Mo’s copy of the book is destroyed. Together, they seek out the author of Inkheart (Jim Broadbent) in the hopes that he has maintained a copy of the manuscript. When author and character meet face to face, the film unravels into Metafiction for Dummies. When he realizes that the author kills him at the end of the book, Dustfingers determines that he has free will and that his end has not yet been written. A Luigi Pirandello play this is not. This unlikely trio sets forth to right their respective wrongs and restore order to their two worlds—but the ever-present yet unmotivated threat of The Shadow looms large on the horizon.
To assume that this story is an allegory for the power of the written word is to give it too much credit. Throughout a plot where characters from A Thousand and One Arabian Nights and The Wizard of Oz are brought forth from the page to fight and defend the hapless protagonists, Inkheart uses words like weapons only to, inevitably, shoot itself in the foot through inept storytelling. Author Cornelia Funke and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire were able to cherry-pick characters throughout literary antiquity and gleefully plunder from modern fantasy writers yet remain oblivious to basic structural elements like character motivation (at one point Helen Mirren’s character asks herself what’s her motivation without providing an answer) and finishing subplots after introducing them.
At the very least, it is commendable that the filmmakers are promoting literacy. If every film was as poorly realized as this one, I too, would find myself curled up with a good book more often.