Friday, January 23, 2009

Review: "Inkheart"

Seventeen years ago I saw a movie called “School Ties” that starred a kid named Brendan Fraser. It was the first time I’d ever seen an actor for the first time and immediately said to myself, “That guy is going to be a star.” (To boot, “School Ties” also featured Chris O’Donnell, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.)

And Fraser remains a star today, if a low-key one – he starred in two $100 million-grossing movies in 2008.

Fraser headlines in the new movie “Inkheart,” but the star of tomorrow it heralds is Eliza Hope Bennett, who plays his daughter. Bennett glides onto the screen with an astonishing confidence and an unwavering gaze. She’s a cutie, of course, with a girlish winsomeness that promises to bloom into womanly beauty. She also has a wonderfully rich, resonant voice for such a youngster (she’s 16), and even sings a song on the movie’s soundtrack.

But what’s more, Bennett has that indescribable “it” factor that, like a Julia Roberts or Will Smith, makes it hard for an audience to tear their eyes off her.

Bennett and Fraser play Meggie and Mortimer Folchart, a father/daughter team who circle the globe looking for an obscure book titled “Inkheart.” Dad is circumspect why this long crusade, and even more mysterious about Meggie’s long-absent mother. Just when Mort finds a battered copy, a strange figure named Dustfinger (Paul Bettany) turns up with strange demands about Mort using the book to send him back home.

You see, Mort is a silvertongue, a person with the magical ability to summon things straight out of a book simply by reading them aloud. Years ago, while reading to a young Meggie, Mort brought Dustfinger, a fire juggler and trickster, out of the Inkheart book, and he’s been aching to get back to his family ever since.

Unfortunately, Mort also called forth Capricorn (Andy Serkis), the villain of the story. What’s more, there’s a price to be paid whenever a silvertongue reads aloud: For every thing summoned, something gets sent into the world of the book. Mort’s wife was sucked away that fateful night, and he’s been looking for a copy ever since so he can try to bring her back.

Capricorn’s been busy, however. He’s set himself up in a European castle, and used another silvertongue to call forth an army of henchmen, as well as a zoo of magical creatures. (Anyone who seriously displeases him is sent to “the ticking crocodile.”) Unfortunately, because this silvertongue is a stutterer, the people he summons come out malformed, with words spread haphazardly across their faces.

It’s a wonderfully inventive universe based on the novel by Cornelia Funke, although the metaphysical implications can you send you reeling – especially after the Inkheart author himself is brought in as a character (Jim Broadbent) and starts tinkering with his story.

This movie, directed by Iain Softley from a script by David Lindsay-Abaire, is aimed at a preteen audience with its diet of bloodless action and fantasy story elements culled from popular fiction, like Rapunzel and Toto from “The Wizard of Oz.” It’s breezy fun, although Softley’s repeated use of Nazi imagery for Capricorn’s black-jacketed thugs is distracting.

“Inkheart” is an above-average children’s adventure film, and will suitably entertain families but probably not linger long in memory. Its more likely legacy is to be remembered as the movie in which we first saw Eliza Hope Bennett. This first chapter of her career is full of promise.

Three stars out of four

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