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Inkheart
Reviewed by Matthew Bey, © 2009

Format: Movie
By:   Iain Softley and Cornelia Funke
Genre:   Children Fantasy
Review Date:   January 25, 2009
Audience Rating:   PG
RevSF Rating:   3/10 (What Is This?)

Mediocrity has a name, and that name is "Brendan Fraser." He's many years out from his core resume of monkey-centric roles such as Encino Man and George of the Jungle, but he's still got those soft simian features, which simultaneously make him likable and hard to take seriously as an actor.

But let's not get down on him for his failure in the edginess department. Somebody has to be in all the forgettable movies. Fraser isn't so much the Humphrey Bogart of his generation, so much as he's the Richard Moll.

Fraser stars in Inkheart , a film adaptation of a German children's book of the same name. It takes place in a continental Europe where everyone has an English accent except Brendan Fraser. Another recent Hollywood adaptation of a German story, Tom Cruise's Valkyrie, suffered a similar dialect anomaly. This stems from a conflict between two iron-clad Hollywood laws:

1.) If characters are speaking in a foreign language, they have an English accent.
2.) English accents are fine and good for chicks, comedic sidekicks, and Nazis, but heroes are red-blooded Americans thank you very much.

Fraser's character is a "silvertongue," someone who has the ability to draw characters out of books into the real world just by reading the books out loud. With his daughter, he searches continental Europe for a copy of the mysterious fantasy book Inkheart, but not the Inkheart on which the movie is based, which merely has the book Inkheart within it, as does the Inkheart movie, because let's not bring up the possibility of Brendan Fraser using his silvertongue ability to read the Inkheart Brendan Fraser into the real world, which would be incredibly freakish.

The screening of Inkheart I attended had only a handful of viewers, despite being the opening weekend. This could be because Inkheart is primarily a children's movie and it was a late screening, or it could be because everyone was watching Bedtime Stories, that recent Adam Sandler movie about stories coming to life which also nobody watched.

We've seen the whole "bringing imaginary things to life" theme many times before, in Neverending Story most notably. What's the appeal of the fictional story about a fictional story that becomes real? The object story still isn't real, it's more like you're taking an extra unreal story and making it merely unreal, or in other words increasing the sum total of unreality in the overall work of fiction. Whoa! I nearly got lost in a reiterative semiotic recursion there.

In practice this means that Inkheart suffocates beneath its own high-concept Hollywood formula. As a mainstream Hollywood kids' movie it's the essence of mediocrity. In a few months it'll be good for slipping in the DVD player to keep the little rugrats busy for ninety minutes while you go and booze up on cheap malt liquor.

But as book-porn, which Inkheart clearly aspires to, it's a complete failure.

A mainstream Hollywood movie with the message that "reading is fun" is about as disingenuous as a crack dealer telling his underage clients to volunteer at the homeless shelter. A movie about reading is always going to come off as condescending, as if the movie were deigning to take notice of the only medium more passe than itself. It's sort of like watching a 3-D movie about stereopticons.

Shortly into Inkheart, Helen Mirren, playing the bookish old aunt, repeats the old saw that books allow her to visit anywhere in the world, or in space and time (Hey! Leave sci-fi out of this!), without ever leaving the library. Well, you can do that with TV or Wikipedia and it takes far less time, and it doesn't make you seem as dorky.

Inkheart draws mainly from the classics, as if someone with the "silvertongue" ability would never read a book written after 1920. L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz appears often. It's a book that few living humans have read, that exists in the popular consciousness almost exclusively due to a single movie adaptation (out of many). If they had brought out a character who had appeared in subsequent Oz novels, but not in the 1939 Judy Garland movie, like the Saw-Horse, then one could give more credence to this whole "books are cool" theme.

It's sort of like comic book adaptations of A Tale of Two Cities or all those PBS kids shows where they have an animated cat fight Captain Ahab. If you have all of Western literary culture to draw from, and you end up with some winged monkeys, a ticking crocodile, and a minotaur, it seems like you're missing the whole point. Literature isn't about characters with special powers, it's about an immersive experience, subtle characterization, and internal conflict.

But even if you ignore all the literary qualities of literature, the silvertongues are clearly missing a lot of opportunities. Throughout Inkheart I kept thinking that someone should pick up a Clive Cussler novel. If Brendan Fraser had Dirk Pitt on his side, they could have wrapped up the whole movie in twenty minutes. And they would have found a lost shipwreck in the bargain.


Matthew Bey speaks with an English accent, and we'll let you draw your own conclusions about that.

 
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