German purveyors of novels for young people seem to have a need to pen children’s books emphasizing the power of reading itself, perhaps to convince kids that working through their fantasy volumes isn’t just fun but worth the effort. That was the case with Michael Ende’s “The Neverending Story,” and it’s equally so with the novel by Cornelia Funke from which this film has been adapted. But while Wolfgang Petersen’s 1984 filmization of Ende’s book was charmingly imaginative, the take on Funke’s by Iain Softley is a visually overstuffed but emotionally undernourished piece of whimsy, more akin in its effect to Chris Weitz’s chilly, remote “Golden Compass” or Matthew Vaughn’s lumbering “Stardust” than to Petersen’s pitch-perfect treatment.
The premise behind the plot is pretty much the reverse of “Story.” In that film, reading a book magically transports a young boy into the tale he’s reading, and he has to overcome his fears to help a young warrior save a princess from the reality-destroying incursion of a horrible creature called The Nothing. Here, the idea is that there are special people called Silvertongues who transport characters and things from books that they read aloud into our world. Unfortunately, there’s a price: somebody from this world is simultaneously yanked into the book in a sort of cosmic trade.
One such figure is a book restorer named Mortimer Folchart (Brendan Fraser), who spends his days travelling the byways of Europe with his daughter Meggie (Eliza Hope Bennett) searching for a copy of a special rare book, the fantasy called “Inkheart.” The reason for his obsession is eventually made clear: when, years before, he read the book aloud to Meggie and her mother Resa (Sienna Guillory), it brought various characters from the tome into our world, but Resa was drawn into the novel. Mo hopes that by reading from the book again he can bring her back.
He’s dogged, though, by characters from the book—particularly a despondent “fire juggler” called Dustfinger (Paul Bettany), who desperately wants Mo to read him back into the book, and the evil Capricorn (Andy Serkis), who wants a proper Silvertongue (the only one he has stutters, with the result that the people and things he draws into this world are somehow defective). In particular, it’s eventually revealed, he wants to transport from the book a destructive being called The Shadow, which—it must be noted—comes across as a total rip-off of The Nothing from “Story,” to do his bidding.
Most of “Inkheart” turns out to be an elaborate chase in which Mo and Meggie are repeatedly captured and threatened and Dustfinger changes sides intermittently. And more characters are added to the mix, not just Meggie’s haughty great-aunt Elinor (Helen Mirren), but Farid (Rafi Gavron), a young thief transported into the world from the “Arabian Nights,” and Feboglio (Jim Broadbent), the daffy author of “Inkheart” itself. Even Resa shows up as a scullery maid in Capricorn’s Italian castle, though she’s mute as a result of that stutter. On the edges of things are other beings that Capricorn has brought over from well-known works—including the minotaur, the flying monkeys from Oz, and the crocodile from “Peter Pan,” as well as an army of his henchmen.
It all gets terribly crowded, but despite all the bustle the picture never manages to generate much energy, and certainly very little charm. Entirely too much footage is devoted to Capricorn stalking about threatening people (Serkis, who has to posture, smirk and deliver reams of oily dialogue, looks much less happy in the flesh than he did as a mere model for CGI effects in “The Two Towers”), Mirren and Broadbent, talented though they are, are arch and affected from trying too hard, and Guillory makes almost no impression at all. More seriously, Fraser offers just a more pallid version of his turn in the “Mummy” franchise, Bettany is simply dour, and Bennett lacks charisma, coming off particularly dull in the last reel. In fact, the sprightliest work comes from Gavron, but he’s not around all that much.
The cast could have done better, one suspects, if the script were more coherent (the rules of transference are never really made clear) and fun (one waits fruitlessly for some wit in the largely leaden dialogue), or if Iain Softley’s direction showed some concern for real human feeling. Instead he seems content to act like a traffic cop shuffling the actors around, leaving most of the work of holding interest to the behind-the-scenes crew. But even here the verdict is mixed. John Beard’s production design, the art direction by Rod McLean and Stuart Rose, Niamh Coulter’s sets and Verity Hawkes’ costumes are mostly impressive, and except in dark scenes Roger Pratt’s cinematography has a genuine glow. But frankly the effects aren’t overwhelming, particularly when The Shadow shows up at the end, looking like a poor mix between Petersen’s Nothing and The Sandman from “Spider-Man 3.”
The result is yet another big, overblown fantasy movie that never takes flight. At one point nasty-tongued Capricorn refers to the novel of “Inkheart” as “a very tedious book.” As it turns out, the adjective applies to Softley’s adaptation of it, too.