Like most fantasy-adventure stories, Inkheart, adapted from German author Cornelia Funke’s popular series of children’s books, strives to conjure up a long-forgotten world. But you won’t be marveling at the tale’s mythical beasts and dastardly rapscallions nearly as much as you’ll be faintly recalling the pre-Internet era, back when it used to be fairly difficult to put your hands on a particular object. Here, mild-mannered bookbinder Mo Folchart (Fraser) and his 12-year-old daughter, Meggie (Bennett), roam all over Europe, searching antiquarian bookstores for a copy of the titular novel. Mo, you see, is a Silvertongue, and nine years earlier, while reading aloud to young Meggie from Inkheart, he inadvertently yanked characters from the book into the real world—and also, thanks to some bizarre equivalence rule that’s never explained, also banished his wife (Sienna Guillory) into its pages. Only by finding a copy of the now-lost tome can he restore his family and thwart evil. Which is all well and good, but this movie would be over in 10 minutes if Mo would just hit Bookfinder.com.
Even if you’re prepared to let that anachronism slide, Inkheart doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, at least in film form. The magical powers of a Silvertongue expand and multiply with a nutty convenience that calls to mind the alleged “rules” of Calvinball, the nonsensical game Calvin and Hobbes used to play. Nor is it remotely clear what happens to books when a Silvertongue pulls an exchange, intentionally or otherwise—a bit problematic, given that we encounter some well-known figures from The Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan. None of which would matter if Inkheart achieved any sense of genuine wonder, but director Iain Softley, for whom it’s been all downhill since his fine version of Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove a decade ago, gives the story a rushed yet plodding rhythm that never quite captivates. Andy Serkis (who played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) and Paul Bettany provide much-needed energy as the fictional refugees, but despite their efforts, Inkheart makes rather too convincing a case for the enduring magic of literature. You’ll wish you were reading a good book instead.