Inkheart (review)

Lost in a Good Book

Yes, I stole that headline from Jasper Fforde’s hilarious fantasy novel [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.] about Thursday Next, Literary Detective, who lives in a parallel universe in which readers can walk into books, characters can walk out of books, and — most fantastically — books are popular like American Idol and football are popular.
Inkheart doesn’t dare stretch phantasmagoria to that absurd level: it’s content with its wonderful creation of “silvertongues,” rare people who can read aloud from a book and make it come to life. Not like we say that, like when Daddy agreed to do all the voices when he read Where the Wild Things Are when you were six, but really. Toto from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz can appear in your bedroom… but the tornado will really take out your house, too. It’s a dangerous gift, and Mo Folchart, collector and repairer of antiquarian books, accidentally discovered he possessed this power when something Really Bad happened as he was reading the medieval fantasy Inkheart to his wife, Resa, and their three-year-old daughter, Meggie.

But that was nine years ago, and now Mo and Meggie — mysteriously sans Resa — travel around Europe haunting old bookstores, looking for… well, we don’t know, at first. And neither does Meggie, because her father (Brendan Fraser [The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, Journey to the Center of the Earth], who is settling very nicely into hunky-dad roles) won’t tell her what’s going on. It’s all for her protection, he says, because that Bad Thing is still ongoing. It seems that the villains of the book-with-the-movie (led by the wonderfully wicked Andy Serkis: Flushed Away, The Prestige) had escaped from their pages and are wreaking havoc in the “real world,” and now it’s time for Mo and Meggie to stop them… if they can.

It’s a charming and cheerfully creepy fantasy, this movie also called Inkheart, one that harkens back to pleasantly sinister children’s flicks of a generation ago such as Labyrinth and The Neverending Story. It’s not for the diehard Lord of the Rings fans who want to see bloody orc heads flying across battlefields but rather for those youngsters who’ve devoured Harry Potter and need something else to move on to. (Indeed, it’s based on a 2003 young-adult novel [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.] first published in Germany, by author Cornelia Funke, who sounds like something out of Harry Potter herself). A story about the power of words, about books as overwhelming, about the idea that getting lost in a good book could be more than just a metaphor? I love it.

And there are lovely shivery moments early on that hint at the menace to come, as Mo and Meggie both hear, without realizing that the other does, books whispering their secrets to them as they wander in libraries and bookstores. Books as the harbingers and carriers of dangerous notions… that’s more than a little subversive, and it hovers under the surface of Inkheart throughout.

I don’t want to oversell the movie: It is unquestionably for children, but unlike many children’s movies, it does not assume kids are stupid or will respond only to toilet humor or slapstick. Director Iain Softley (The Skeleton Key, K-pax) does not sugarcoat the darker aspects of the story — which treads on such tender topics as parental abandonment and familial love turned into a weapon. There’s risk here — not, perhaps, risk that will resonate deeply with adults. But this is that rare family movie that is, in appropriate measures, dark but hopeful, grim but gentle, scary but comforting, and perfect for curling up with.

Oh, and the name of the lovely young actress who plays Meggie? Eliza Bennett (Nanny McPhee). Maybe Meggie and Mo will jump into Pride & Prejudice in the sequel.

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