Mo (Fraser) can summon characters from books by reading aloud. He is nagged by Dustfinger (Bettany), a fictional character who wants to go home, and hunted by Capricorn (Serkis), who wants to exploit Mo and his similarly-talented daughter Meggie (Bennett) to evil ends.
The central idea of Inkheart — which originates with novelist Cornelia Funke — is irresistible, but the movie is somewhat limited by a hesitancy of imagination (and the spectre of copyright). Its established ‘silvertongues’ are wary of using their power to summon characters (and objects) from books, since a universal balance means that real people (like the hero’s own wife) vanish into fiction to even things up — but the ‘book doctor’ played by Brendan Fraser might solve his problems more swiftly if he read more widely. Since his big mission is raiding a castle to rescue his family, he could easily whip up some characters like James Bond or Superman to save the day.
Inkheart is a bit of a mess, with many characters running around interesting, misty Italian locations at crossed purposes while the screenplay struggles to establish the rules of its fantastical premise. There is a lot of suggestive detail (like the backwards texts stained on characters imperfectly summoned by a stuttering silvertongue) and cameos for the likes of Rapunzel, but the bigger picture never quite coalesces, and we’re left with a few tantalising questions — like whether Inkheart the novel becomes a lot duller since all its villains are displaced into the real world. Brendan Fraser is yet again cast as a supposed hero in danger of getting lost in a busy crowd (and Sienna Guillory as his vanished-but-not-really wife fares even worse), but there’s showboating fun from Paul Bettany as a cowardly flame-thrower with an appropriate companion animal (“So you can speak Weasel? I’m not surprised.”), Helen Mirren as a dotty bibliophile aunt, Jim Broadbent as a useless writer who is delighted to see his characters in the flesh even as they abuse him, and Andy Serkis in a variant of the Charles Dance role in Last Action Hero as a fictional villain delighted to be in a world where good doesn’t always win.
Smartly directed by Iain Softley, who skips easily from comedy to fantasy to action, Inkheart gets by on a rich cast of supporting characters (and a fine selection of British eccentric character actors, including John Thomas, Jamie Foreman, Matt King and Steve Speirs), a unique and intriguing look, and a good, big scary monster (The Shadow) at the end.
Magical, if messy this gets by on a good heart, high adventure and an unashamed love for books.