Reading Rainbow

There's nothing like a bad book adaptation to turn kids on to the written word.

Brendan “Kids' Choice” Fraser returns to the multiplex daycare as “Mo” Folchart, antiquarian-book-repairman-cum-adventurer. In Inkheart's opening chapter, he's identified as a member of a race of “Silvertongues” — those who, when they read aloud, can suck people out of and into the texts they're reciting from. Mo has abstained from practicing his gift ever since, when reading from some limited-press-run sub–Terry Brooks fantasy, the titular Inkheart, his wife was slurped off into limbo just as a motley assortment of the book's rough-and-ready dramatis personae popped off the page.

All of this is retrospectively revealed a decade later to Mo's daughter, now-adolescent Meggie (Eliza Bennett), when Inkheart's villains catch up with Dad while he's scouring obscure continental booksellers looking for a copy of the Book so he can reverse the switch. The capo of the baddies, Capricorn (a clean-pated mortician's waxen Andy Serkis, lending a squint of sardonic delectation), doesn't want to go back into bindery, and so orders copies of Inkheart put out of print by a private army of book-burning brigands. His henchmen are a crossbreed of Blackshirt thugs and a mid-'90s nü-metal band, operating from the castle whose dungeon holds a menagerie of literary beasties including L. Frank Baum'S flying monkeys, a J.M. Barrie ticking croc, and a Thomas Bulfinch minotaur. (PBS' Wishbone, with a Great Books reading list of Dickens, Poe, and Stevenson, was comparatively AP English in its allusions.)

Inkheart's source is the inaugural title in the lucrative Inkworld series by Cornelia Funke — “Germany's most successful children's-book author of all time,” according to the press kit. Strong international box office, for which the Anglo-American cast and built-in homeland fanbase seem well designed, should line up the financing for a trilogy.

This opening petition for the franchise is an upscale number, with resort-town Italian Riviera locales, top-shelf English actors (Paul Bettany, Helen Mirren, Jim Broadbent), and a nicely rendered, smoldering CGI end boss. The exteriors are passably picturesque, but never indelible on the Maxfield-Parrish-doing-psychedelic-album-covers level of Tarsem Singh's The Fall.

Director Iain Softley, the man who honed himself to adapt Wings of the Dove by helming Hackers, is strictly a functionary; spreading the epidemic of fanbase-kowtowing “adaptation,” it seems as though every concession has been made to keep the book's big cast of characters relatively intact. Condensing 535 pages from the English-language hardcover to a 103-minute running time? Certainly more daunting compressions have succeeded, but there's a palpable feel of pinching here. Without the breathing room for characters to cultivate character, one-note shtick suffices, gamely appeasing the readership with walk-ons (“Hey, there's Basta!”). A prickly apprenticeship between Bettany's vagabond magician Dustfinger and Arabian Nights extra Farid (Rafi Gavron) never engages. It's only thanks to reminders from the rest of the cast that you understand Mirren, as Meg's Great Aunt, is “lovably eccentric.”

It all smacks of that overdone “passion for literature” common in off-putting English teachers who send any healthy-minded kid running from books at top speed. Mirren's villa has a dream library that might grace a box of Celestial Seasonings tea, replete with an oh-so-cozy windowside nook. Bibliophile characters exclaim: “What in the name of Chaucer's beard?,” “For the love of Thomas Hardy!,” and “Great galloping Knut Hamsuns!” (I made just one of those up.) Fraser intones, “The written word: It's a powerful thing,” as though sitting for his “Reading Is FUNdamental” poster.

This is the sort of thing routinely allowed to pass because it “introduces young people to a love of reading” in a world perpetually panicked about the newest generation not learning how books work. (The introduction seemingly consists of persuading youths that sitting with a book is the sensory-assault equivalent of a Six Flags visit.) All of which is really just as likely to introduce young people to reading bilge. And anyway: Why being shut in with Boy Wizards or Tolkien's drudging mythos should be inherently preferable to, say, working on a jump shot or watching SpongeBob SquarePants is quite beyond me— unless you happen to be in the Young Adult racket, that is.

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