Directed By: Iain Softley
Starring: Brendan Fraser, Paul Bettany, Helen Mirren, Elizabeth Hope Bennett, Jim Broadbent, Andy Serkis, Rafi Gavron
Inkheart, adapted from the popular fantasy novel by Cornelia Funke, tells the story of Mo Folchart (Fraser) and his family. Mo is a bookbinder who hides from his daughter, Meggie (Bennett) the fact that he is a "Silvertongue": a person who has the ability to make items from books come to life when he reads aloud. Meggie accompanies his dad as his profession takes him across the globe to various antique bookshops where he always seems to be looking for copies of a rare and elusive book named "Inkheart". When Mo stumbles across a copy of the book in a small European shop, he and Meggie are confronted by a man named Dustfinger who is a character from the book who desperately wants Mo to return him to its pages. Mo refuses, and through the ensuing conflict, Meggie learns of her father's abilities, why he is reluctant to use them, and how they relate to her mother's unexplained disappearance nearly a decade previous. Ultimately, Mo and Meggie find themselves on the run from Capricorn (Serkis), a villain from the "Inkheart" novel who seeks to exploit Mo's abilities. Their efforts to evade and thwart Capricorn find them allied with Mo's eccentric book-loving Aunt Elinor (Mirren), characters liberated from other books such as Farid (Gavron) from a tale of Ali Baba and the 40 thieves, and original "Inkheart" author Fenoglio (Broadbent).
The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter film series have set the bar very high for films adapted from popular fantasy fiction, so I may as well state up front that Inkheart is not in the class of those films. That being said, it is certainly not a complete disaster either. Its novel premise is appealingly fanciful and its characters, as embodied by a charismatic cast are likeable if a bit underdeveloped.
Despite the active involvement of author Cornelia Funke (a credited producer who had influence over even the casting), this film adaptation feels a bit choppy, and viewers unfamiliar with the novel (such as yours truly) will no doubt be perplexed by what feels like huge chunks of missing exposition. While leaving out details in such a way as to suggest a larger world outside the film's events is not necessarily a bad idea, leaving out details that are necessary to understand the film and make it dramatically satisfying is never a good idea. Additionally, the "Silvertongue" ability and its negative consequences are used in a dramatically lazy way, with potential drawbacks being too serious for Mo to even consider reading aloud through the first half of the film, while they are used willy nilly for deus ex machina effect through the film's final act completely absent of any negative consequences.
The film also seems to be in a hurry to get through the plot points connecting its various fantasy set-pieces. While this keeps things from ever getting too boring, it is done in such a way to leave many of the characters feeling sketchy and one-dimensional. Again, viewers familiar with the book may be able to fill in the details of characters such as Aunt Elinor, Meggie, and Capricorn that make them compelling, but this adaptation offers few such details between its opening and closing credits. Brendan Fraser exceeded my modest expectations by imbuing Mo with almost enough personality to make him sympathetic, but even this nominal leading character is only given a handful of opportunities to do anything but spring into action. Jim Broadbent and Paul Bettany play the only characters in the film afforded any opportunity to be multi-dimensional, and to their credit, they make the most of their opportunities. Broadbent revels in his character's eccentric delight in meeting creations from his novel, and Bettany seems to be enjoying embodying the morally grey misery of the desperately homesick Dustfinger.
With the above criticisms aired, the film's concentration on plot and basic character motivations at least prevents the viewer from pondering its deficiencies while it is actively unspooling. The end result is a diverting time-passer for fans of fantasy in general or the book in particular. Except for fans of the book who may enjoy seeing its characters dramatically embodied through the magic of cinema, I cannot imagine many viewers who will find it especially memorable or worthy of repeat viewings like the best films in the genre.
The 16:9 enhanced 2.35:1 video presentation looks to be a bit soft, especially in the film's early going. It looks like the kind of filtering that one would apply to soften film grain to improve compression. Compression issues are relatively few, and occasional thin edge halos are apparent when viewing the film on large displays. I did not look at the 4:3 reformatted presentation on the flip side of the disc for the purpose of this review.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track offers a somewhat disappointing representation of the film's theatrical mix. The main culprit appears to be dynamic compression which is applied so liberally that I actually double checked my receiver and DVD player's set-up menus to make sure that it was not enabled through hardware. There is not much difference between the loud and soft passages of the soundtrack which robs some of the scenes of much of their impact. Whether this was a technical glitch or a conscious decision somewhere along the audio production chain (e.g. to make the film less scary to younger viewers by taking the edge off of audio "stingers") it makes the whole thing sound pretty bland.
The only special feature included on the disc is a featurette entitled Eliza Reads to Us (3:45). After a brief introduction from Inkheart author Cornelia Funke, Elizabeth Hope Bennett reads a passage from the end of the book that did not make it to the film. Footage of Ms. Bennett reading is intercut with shots of various Funke illustrations.
When the disc is first spun-up, the viewer is greeted with the following promos, all presented in 4:3 letterboxed video with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound unless otherwise indicated:
- Warner Blu-Ray Promo (Dolby Digital 5.1 sound - 1:09)
- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Theatrical Trailer (1:52)
- Ace Ventura Jr.: Pet Detective DTV Trailer (4:3 Full Frame - 1:04)
- Green Lantern DTV Behind the Scenes Promo - (16:9 enhanced video - 3:01)
The disc is a double-sided single-layered DVD-10 "flipper". The widescreen and 4:3 reformatted presentations of the film each get their own side with identical promos and extras on either side. The DVD is packaged in an Amaray-sized Ecobox case with a paper insert with a code for downloading a reduced price Windows-Media digital copy. The hard case is inserted in a cardboard slipcover that reproduces the same artwork with foil enhancements to the "magical swirly" bits. Pet peeve alert: the main menu has a link to a "Features" menu even though there is only one feature on the disc.
Inkheart is a diverting but ultimately insubstantial adaptation of the popular fantasy novel by Cornelia Funke with a screenplay that keeps the plot chugging along but underuses most of its talented and charismatic cast by saddling them with one-dimensional characters. It is presented on DVD with somehwhat lackluster audio/video quality with a soft-filtered cast to the image and a soundtrack surprisingly lacking in dynamics. The only extra is a four minute featurette with juvenile actress Eliza Hope Bennett reading a passage from the conclusion of the source novel that was omitted from the film including some brief introductory comments and illustrations from author Funke.