This realm-busting fantasy boasts high adventure and a stellar cast though really unable to let an audience inhabit its world. It lends a certain amount of importance to imagination in the reading process, as well as books as indicated from an early scene with two important characters.
The delayed Inkheart is the kind of fare that should resonate for families, but is more of an uneven, overstuffed cinematic ride. It's based on the Cornelia Funke novel translated into 37 languages.
Brendan Fraser's Mortimer, or Mo, keeps a secret from his young teen daughter Meggie, a plucky Eliza Hope Bennett. It concerns the disappearance of her mother (Sienna Guillory).
Mo has the "gift" of being a Silvertongue; when he reads aloud from a book, characters come in and out of the pages. So, this yarn takes on a similar trek to Fraser's recent adventure Journey To The Center of the Earth, to arguably more cluttered and outrageous effect. Perhaps if it donned the 3D technology the pop-up book look might have more of a visual presence going for it.
In Italy with a prim, dotty Aunt (Helen Mirren), Mo and Meggie meet up with a long-haired self-proclaimed fire-juggler, Dustfinger (Paul Bettany of The Secret Life of Bees). This hirsute fellow is into Mo's "backstory". Andy Serkis, known mostly for Gollum from The Lord of the Rings trilogy is the meglomaniacal Capricorn, who'll do anything to keep from re-entering the pages where he once existed. He just happens to be the tatooed, bald-pated villain brought to life from a rare children's fable.
Director Iain Softley has delved into the supernatural and mystical with mixed success, if one considers K-Pax or The Skeleton Key, the latter with its Bayou-based hoodoo. He tries to keep a tangible fulcrum for the quirky humor and taut enigmatic happenings with the story's parameters set for those readily acclimated to the "rules" of these colliding realms.
The two narrative threads by David Lindsay-Abaire show the similarities of Mo and Dustfinger. Bettany in some ways outshines Fraser, the latter more reactive in nature (and not having a good hair day), and the former making decent use of his steely visage and emotion outwardly from the like need to be with one who completes him.
In backup roles, Jim Broadbent finds his way through fuddy-duddy author Fenoglio, while Rafi Gavron fills the mercurial urchin Farid. Jamie Foreman dives into Basta, a knife-flashing aide. While Bennett (Nanny McPhee) is likeable as the also gifted Meggie who really gets a wild fashion transformation, Serkis and Mirren aren't as compelling in broadly etched roles. Although the turban-coiffed Mirren has more command and charm early on before seen on a unicorn much later.
Inkheart indulges, while keeping its special effects set pieces in check, in the kind of visual hysteria that is watchable but as light as cotton candy when it comes to the impact of story and characters. It invites laughter and may be too intense at times for younger viewers as character like Fenoglio have their cathartic moments. While some might easily endure the action and ending with flying monkeys and a crocodile, others might wish they could be Mo and have it disappear back to where it belongs.