'Inkheart' presents a fascinating combination of pop cultural oddities.
The first of these oddball pop elements is the very phenomenon of the "Brendan Fraser Special Effects-Heavy Family Film." Think about this. His career seems to have devolved into little more than Fraser mugging for the camera while vaguely threatening animated characters whirl around him.
Think about the number of films in which he's had to contend with some element of computer generated insanity: 'George of the Jungle,' 'Monkeybone,' the three 'Mummy' films, 'Dudley Do-Right,' 'Looney Tunes: Back in Action,' and 'Journey to the Center of the Earth 3-D.' Despite the occasional stab at highbrow legitimacy ('Gods & Monsters,' 'The Quiet American'), Fraser seems very content to stare, google-eyed, as various creatures chase after him. There are usually elements of broad humor to go along with all the whiz-bangery. It seems Fraser is on the same career path as Eddie Murphy, but at a lower pay scale! Still, here's hoping Fraser can stay away from any unfortunate 'Meet Dave'-type projects.
The second pop culture phenomenon is the "Fake 'Harry Potter' Movie." This can largely be summed up as any studio's attempt at duplicating the enormous success of Warner Brothers' 'Harry Potter' franchise. Usually these films are based on a popular children's book (or series of children's books), often involving elements of fantasy or science fiction. Often, they're also hugely expensive, and almost all of them fail. So, if people actually get excited about the first film, well, chances are it didn't make enough money to warrant a second. (Even Disney bailed out of the classic 'Narnia' films after 'Prince Caspian' underperformed.)
Sometimes these 'Harry Potter' clones are endearing and wind up as minor, underrated accomplishments (I'm thinking of 'The Spiderwick Chronicles' and 'City of Ember' specifically), but most are just atrocious failures, heaping manufactured mysticism on top of iffy special effects ('Seeker,' 'Eragon,' 'Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events'). There's a reason none of these have managed to connect with an audience, much less dethrone 'Harry Potter,' most of them are very lousy.
And where, exactly, does 'Inkheart' fall?
Well, it's not unwatchable. And I guess that's saying something.
'Inkheart' is based on a young-adult novel by Cornelia Funke, originally published in Germany. It's the first part of a trilogy of books that share the same world, the last of which was published in the fall of 2007. In the movie, Brendan Fraser plays Mo Folchart (yes, that's seriously his name), a book restorer who is also a "silver tongue" - he has the magical ability to, when reading aloud, bring characters out of books. (It's unknown if this works on nonfiction books since all the characters in the movie are from works of fiction. Still, it'd be cool to see him draw out historical figures from nonfiction accounts.)
He has a young daughter named Meggie (Eliza Bennett), and through the course of the movie we learn that, while Meggie was very young, Mo was reading a fantasy book called 'Inkheart' and his wife was whisked into the book while several characters, including Paul Bettany's fire-thrower Dustfinger (yes, that's seriously his name) and Andy Serkis' dastardly Capricorn (yes, that's seriously his name) came out of the book. (He really should have stuck to the basics!)
Since then, he's been searching for the book, long out of print, in order to try and get his wife back. But he's not the only one looking for 'Inkheart,' as the bad guys want Fraser's abilities, and Dustfinger wants back into the book, where his wife is waiting for him (played, briefly, by Jennifer Connolly). As you can tell, it's all very convoluted.
What's striking about 'Inkheart' is how much talent was put into this movie. The film was directed by Ian Softley, an interesting director who started off making energetic movies for kids (the thinly-veiled Beatles movie 'Backbeat' and techno-punk thriller 'Hackers'), then made a critical smash ('Wings of the Dove') and the underrated gothic horror film 'The Skeleton Key.' The dude is not lacking for style. When Mo reads from the book, the entire movie shakes and looks like it's coming apart at the seams.
The 'Inkheart' script, too, is packing some serious muscle. David Lindsay-Abaire, a Pulitzer Prize winning dramatist who most recently wrote the book and lyrics for the Tony-nominated 'Shrek the Musical', adapted it. (His cinematic efforts are more iffy, providing elements to the script for the animated film 'Robots.' He's currently finishing his first draft of 'Spider-Man 4.') You'd think someone as capable as Lindsay-Abaire would inject the project with a bit more… flair. Sadly, that is lacking.
Also, get a look at the supporting cast: Helen Mirren, Jim Broadbent, well, that's about it. But it's a good cast. But man, is this thing painfully slow. And about halfway through the movie, we learn that Mo's daughter has the same "silver tongue" gift, which relegates Mo, who has been set up to be the hero of the piece, to the sidelines for much of the climax. And while the central conceit is enticing, it seems apparent that issues with rights to certain literary characters means that we're left with a relatively small pool of fantastical creatures. We do see what the winged monkeys from 'Wizard of Oz' look like with a post-millennial CGI makeover. They were good before.
Overall, 'Inkheart' is a slow, dull, emotionally distant family film that I can't imagine any child really taking a shine too. Still, fans of the book will probably get something out of it. Probably. Everyone else will likely be bored to tears.
Initially, the disc's 1080p/VC-1 transfer is impressive. The camera glides over mountaintops and swoops into medieval alleyways and it's all very stylish. The movie has a golden, autumnal palette and the colors really pop. There's an abundance of detail, in setting and costume, and these are fully realized - crisp and well defined. Then, once things get going, the transfer falters big time.
Those autumnal colors go soft. Things become smeared and hazy, like the movie is being shot through plumes of thick fog. Aliasing and ringing are a constant problem, mostly with moving outdoors shots. When things switch to interiors, things firm up considerably. Definition is good, detail is mostly clear and blacks levels are deep. The film's last act, when Brendan Fraser takes a breather and a large, smoke-like monster called The Shadow erupts to terrorize our heroes, generally looks solid, with rich shadows and computer generated creatures looking good, but it's not enough to excuse the seeming laziness that this transfer conjures up. There is also occasional source noise.
This kind of iffy transfer is inexcusable. This is a brand new movie that has certainly gone through a digital intermediate and had a high def transfer struck. The movie was always a child that nobody wanted, a product of New Line Cinema's production pipeline that got scooped up by Warner Bros. once that company was absorbed. There was very little marketing for the movie (a screening I was invited to stressed that I could bring as many children as I wanted - they must have been really counting on schoolyard word-of-mouth), and I feel that general lack of care has gone into his home video release.
Considerably more impressive is the disc's audio. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio offers a muscular and well-prioritized surround mix that inserts much warmth and action into an otherwise stale movie.
Dialogue comes off as crisp and clear, there's plenty of ambience, and rear-channel activity. There's a sequence in which our heroes are taken to the villain's castle, where they're led through a sort of makeshift zoo that contains a bunch of literary creatures, like a minotaur and those winged monkeys. It's sequences like these where the mix really shines through - hearing those creatures snort and rustle, you can practically make out every pebble underfoot, with every channel coming to life.
Overall, this mix is the AV highpoint of the disc. There really isn't much to complain about - dialogue doesn't get lost in the action, the score booms with equal clarity, and the entire mix is pristine and well managed.
Also included on the disc are English Dolby Digital 5.1 (remember to switch over, this is the default track for the disc for some reason) and German: Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes as well as subtitles in English, Spanish and German (giving props to its Germanic heritage, huh?)
It should be noted that this disc comes with a regular DVD as well, and on that DVD is your digital download copy. We are treated to a meager selection of special features (most of which are, mercifully, in HD).
This is worth a rental if your babysitter needs something new to watch with your kid, if you have a huge crush on Brendan Fraser, or if you enjoyed the source material. If you find yourself in one of these categories, then rent away. Everyone else should probably just skip this forgettable fantasy trifle. There should be a new 'Harry Potter' movie coming out sooner or later.