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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The worst thing to come from the success of The Chronicles of Narnia - other than that wretched Prince Caspian sequel - was the generic marketing of every PG-rated fantasy film adapted from a young adult novel. The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, Eragon, The Golden Compass, and City of Ember were all marketed in that same "we-could-be-the-next-Narnia" way. So was Inkheart - and considering it came at the tail end of the now-worn out genre, I didn't feel any particular compulsion to run out and see it theatrically. Neither did many others. Of course, rule #1 of film criticism is: Don't judge a movie by its marketing. While perhaps not a great film, Inkheart - on DVD June 23 from Warner Home Video - is better than I expected it to be, and better than any of the other titles I mentioned above, save for the criminally underrated City of Ember.

Brendan Fraser plays the absurdly named Mortimer "Mo" Folchart, a man with an extraordinary gift: when he reads aloud from a book, the characters jump off the page and into real life. He stopped performing this act eight years ago, when he read a book called "Inkheart." The book's villain, Capricorn (Andy Sirkis), emerged from the book, and Mo's wife was sucked into it, never to be seen again. Since that time, he's been searching for another copy of the obscure novel so that he can "read her out." This is a secret he's kept from 12 year-old daughter Meggie (Eliza Bennett).

While perusing an antique bookstore tucked quietly away in a foreign marketplace, Mo finds a copy of "Inkheart." As soon as he does, Capricorn shows up again, determined to get the book for himself so that he will not be forced to return to fiction. Also reappearing is the novel's hero Dustfinger (Paul Bettany) who, unlike the villain, is eager to get back into the pages. He strikes a bargain to help Mo fight off Capricorn. Also lending a hand is Elinor (Helen Mirren), who loves and curates old books, and Fenoglio (Jim Broadbent), the author of "Inkheart" who may be uniquely qualified to fight off the villain he created.

Inkheart has a pretty clever premise, and it does a few cool things with it. During one scene where Mo and the others are captured, he reads aloud from "The Wizard of Oz" in order to conjure up the famous tornado, which allows their escape. (Most guys would read Maxim magazine aloud and make cover girls pop off the page, but that's another movie altogether.) Some of the emotionality of the story was effective too. Just as Mo wants to find his wife, Dustfinger longs to return to his true love, Roxanne (Jennifer Connelly in a cameo), but he can't as long as he's on the outside. There's even an intriguing bit of ambivalence involving Dustfinger's fear of reaching the end of his own tale. All this stuff is more ambitious than I expected, and it generally held my interest.

If there's a problem for me with Inkheart, it is one of scope. This feels like it should be an epic movie, but it's not. The tone of the film keeps things relatively small; many of the sets are unconvincing and some of the inventive moments are rushed through rather than savored. This is not to say that I wanted some big, overblown piece of entertainment. Far from it. I just think that the filmmakers perhaps didn't realize how magical their concept was. Rather than sweeping you away with its fantasy, Inkheart just ambles along pleasantly.

At least the movie ends with a bang. A CGI creature known as "the shadow" appears and it is creepily effective in a way that few CGI creations are. The effects people did a great job. Only in the last ten minutes does Inkheart come close to reaching its full potential. Then again, it's nice to see a film that grows stronger as it concludes as opposed to fizzling out, as too many do these days. Nobody's going to stand Inkheart alongside, say, the Harry Potter films, but I enjoyed it to a surprising degree. Flawed, yes, but not without its charms either.

( 1/2 out of four)

DVD Features:

Inkheart arrives on DVD June 23 in widescreen/fullscreen format and on Blu-Ray in widescreen only. A digital copy is also included.

The DVD has one bonus feature. "Eliza Reads to Us" is a 4-minute feature in which actress Eliza Bennett reads a passage from the Cornelia Funke novel on which the movie is based. Drawings and insert shots are used to depict the sequence. This feature is notable mainly for the fact that the passage Bennett reads was not included in the film itself, and so we get a bit more information to add to our understanding of the story.

Technically, the DVD is excellent, with sharp picture quality and a really outstanding digital sound mix.

Inkheart is rated PG for fantasy adventure action, some scary moments and brief language. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.

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