Inkheart throws Helen Mirren on the back of a unicorn, slaps the animal on the ass and sends ‘em into battle. That has to count for something. Ponder it, kids. A sixty-three year old actress given a chance to play the character that swoops back into the story in a last-ditch attempt to save everyone else? Pretty neat, given how Hollywood treats women older than thirty. Not to mention the implicit point: if you keep Legend‘s unicorn ‘rules’ in mind, Mirren’s Last Ride means she’s the oldest virgin you’ll see on screen without renting a documentary about nuns.

The fact that I just blew a paragraph talking about Helen Mirren riding a unicorn is probably all you need to know about Inkheart. Mirrencorn is a nifty thing, but the film has only a couple good performances going for it and little else. Director Iain Softley (Backbeat, Hackers, K-Pax) translates Cornelia Funke’s kid-lit fantasy novel to the screen with all the verve of a man ordering the day’s first cup of coffee. There are shades of neat ideas: a stall full of realistically fearsome flying monkeys from Oz; disposable mercs who all look like Dario Argento; a climatic sequence seemingly staged with the intent to conjure up vibes of the Raiders of the Lost Ark endgame.

And, in an enviable bit of casting, it features Paul Bettany and Andy Serkis in prime roles. Both manage to make their corners of the film look a lot more upscale than they really are. Not that difficult, really, when you’re facing folks like Brendan Fraser, who rarely manages more than ‘likable,’ and Jamie Forman, who plays a violent lieutenant like he’s the Sheriff of Nottingham cruising around Sherwood in an Iroc-Z.

Fraser is Mo, a bookbinder who is also a Silvertongue. That is, he has the rare ability to bring characters to life from books. When he reads aloud, characters flow from the pages into the ‘real’ world. The mechanics of this are murky at best. If he read Jesus out of the Bible, would his copy of the Good Book no longer feature Jesus? Would any others? A few scenes imply that remaining pagebound characters know their friends have gone away, but that’s as far as the logic goes.

Ten years ago, Mo, not realizing his power, read a book called Inkheart to his daughter Meggie (Eliza Bennett). A fire juggler named Dustfinger (Bettany) was brought into our world, along with the villainous Capricorn (Serkis) and his right-hand man Basta (Forman). In the decade since, Mo has stayed a few steps ahead of Capricorn as he searches for a new copy of Inkheart based on the hope that by reading a few pages the interlopers can be sent back. (There’s a bit more to it, but I’m preserving the spoiler-y bits for, well, no real reason. They don’t deserve it.)

Initially, as Mo and Dustfinger are uneasily reunited, Inkheart carries the air of one of Neil Gaiman’s middle Sandman stories. There’s the real world meets fantasy angle, a literary aspect that deepens when Inkheart‘s author (Jim Broadbent) learns that his creations have come to life, and a heavy influence from other classic stories, as when a character from the Thousand Nights and One Night ends up in Mo’s adventuring party.

But while Mo’s daughter should clearly be the central character (and is
in the novel, so far as I can tell) the film doesn’t give her the
reigns until late in the game. Then it’s last-ditch level-up time, as Meggie
becomes the heroine,  learns to be a writer, etc, etc. Feels like the picture’s flow is all out of whack, but when Paul Bettany represents clearly the most interesting performance in the film, I’m surprised editor Martin Walsh ever allowed Meggie to break out at all. Since the script promises a dangerous fate for Meggie by specifically pointing out that kids are never
invulnerable in fairy tales, the sewn-up ending is all the more disappointing.

The original novel, which appears to have a darker tone and a less tidy ending, might fulfill more of the Gaiman-esque promise. But Inkheart, the movie, likes things very clean and family-friendly. It throws a large collection of characters around but doesn’t accomplish very much for all the effort; in the end it all looks like another fantasy. More irritating, it pushes a facile ‘Reading is Fundamental‘ text, even as the most memorable scenes suggest that reading is just about the most dangerous thing you can do.

4.1 out of 10