DVD Showcase: Strong, vibrant cast bring ‘Inkheart’ to life

23 Jun

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June 23rd,2009-

cinemagrade b- I have to admit up-front, I was surprised by Inkheart. I’ve never read this particular fantasy series, but I am familiar with some of German author Cornelia Funke’s other works like The Thief Lord. Funke combines elements of high adventure and Victorian mystery when creating her detailed fantasy worlds and although children are always at the heart of her stories, she frequently gives her readers strong and worthy adult characters. When Ian Softley’s film version was released back in January, I thought it looked rather generic and uninvolving; another Brendan Fraser vehicle with plentiful fx and scenery but no substance. When I watched Inkheart to review it for the site, the first twenty minutes or so did nothing to suggest I had been wrong.

And then, something wonderful happened; the film began to assemble a lively cast of characters played by some terrific and charming actors. When the plot begins to creak, or the visual elements start to overwhelm, the likes of Helen Mirren, Jim Broadbent and Paul Bettany are on hand to steer the movie into clearer more entertaining waters. They are the movie’s gift and they take what would be an otherwise by-the-numbers fantasy romp(Golden Compass for instance) and turn it into something humorous, thrilling and occasionally touching. As a result,  Inkheart gets the generous boost it needs to lift itself apart from the scads of children’s fantasy product out there.inkheart%202%20use

 When Funke’s original novel was released in 2003, it joined a growing trend in children’s fiction of stories centered around the importance of, well, telling stories.  Following in the extra-large footsteps of that other German fantasy, Die unendliche Geschichte (The Neverending Story) these new tales were almost too preoccupied with praising a vivid imagination, the inherent magic and ‘wonder’ of reading and the noble caste of the lonely artist striving heroically for their art. Drop the self-promotion and tell us a good story already!  After a rocky start, though, Inkheart manages to do just that.

Brendan Fraser stars as the book-binder Mo  Folchart (what a name! may I suggest getting a new one) who is traveling the world with his young daughter Meggie (Eliza Bennett) in search of a rare and out of print book called ‘Inkheart’. Everytime they happen upon the location of a copy, strange visitors start crawling out of the woodwork. The strangest of these is Dustfinger,a fire-eater who is also seeking the book and keeps demanding of Mo to be sent back home. Home, it turns out, is within the pages of Inkheart, a fantasy about knights, brigands and shadowy monsters.

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You see, Mo belongs to a special group of people known as ‘Silvertongues’, who for reasons not remotely suggested in the film, can speak objects, people and animals into existence just by reading words from a page. Mo unwittingly released Dustfinger and a low-level henchman named Capricorn, along with a few of his thugs, from Inkheart when Meggie was just 3. Tragically, the rules surrounding the Silvertongue ability function much like Ned’s magic finger in Pushing Daisies; if someone or something is drawn from the book, someone else must replace them. Meggie’s mother was sucked into the other universe and Mo has been looking for her tirelessly since that time.

In addition to Dustfinger, the vile Capricorn(Andy Serkis) is also after copies of the book–mostly so he can burn them, holding one back so that he may summon the demonic Shadow who once served him in his world. Several mini-adventures transpire as Mo, Meggie, Dustfinger and Farid, a boy pulled from The Arabian Nights, try to outsmart Capricorn and his gang, which includes a whole stable of fantastical storybook creatures like Peter Pan’s ticking croc and the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz. Helen Mirren joins early as Meggie’s persnickety grandmother and Jim Broadbent shows up as the incredulous author who wrote Inkheart.

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From a production standpoint, Inkheart works quite well. The storybook sets and location filming in Italy hep give the film an antique adventure feel and the visual effects conjure up some first rate action sequences like a visit from the twister that grabbed Dorothy Gale and the gigantic, brimstone chomping Shadow, who looks like the Balrog crossed with a Cumulo Nimbus.  All the pieces are in place, but Softley, an appropriate name actually, directs it all with far too light and passive a touch.

Instead of being pulled along by the tale’s momentum, the experience of the Inkheart’s early sections is like having someone read us a story; it’s not unpleasant but it isn’t exciting either. This is where the actors come in. Fraser is doing his usual schtick here, but he isn’t a detriment. Like Robin Williams before him, he can be all too manic and overbearing in certain films, but when placed in a fantasy setting he has a certain oddball quality that makes him agreeable. Fraser’s strength is that he embodies the film’s themes and gives young Eliza Bennet(in another meta-turn, she is named after the Austen character) someone to play off of so she doesn’t get lost in the big set pieces. Surprisingly, he is most compelling when  reading the passages of famous novels aloud. After this, Im on my way to Amazon to see if he’s narrated any audio books. Also, he wisely gets out of the way of the rest of the cast and lets them do their thing.

Broadbent and Bettany

Bless Paul Bettany. His Dustfinger, a court appointed fire-eater who was caught up in intrigue and danger in Inkheart, is the movie’s most original and enjoyable creation. He is neither a hero or a villain, but a mostly decent man who wants to return home to his true love Roxanne; since she is played by Bettany’s real-life wife, Jennifer Connelly, who can blame him? Dustfinger is drawn in classic rogue fashion, and Bettany makes him sometimes charming, sometimes dangerous and actually conflicted about the fact he’s little more than a character in a book. He wants to go home, but he doesn’t know how the book ends and, really, he doesn’t want to know.

When he meets Inkheart’s author, Fenoglio, Bettany and Broadbent play off of one another, achieving the movie’s best scene. The old, lonely author is beside himself when he realizes that his creation is before him and Dustfinger is irate and fearful. Bettany hisses “You are not my God!” and Broadbent accidentally lets slip that he killed the fire eater before the book’s end. Watch carefully the interaction here and you will see two actors growing their characters far beyond the words on the page.

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Same goes for Andy Serkis, who is most famous for supplying the voice, spirit and motion captured performance of Gollum in the LOTR films. Serkis is always smirking and his eyes alight with some creepy glee. You can see the gears turning perpetually and just as he suggested depths of inner sorrow and turmoil within Smeagol, he mimics absolute joy and elation as Capricorn, reveling in the ingenuity of his own wickedness. The character himself was just a low level thug in Inkheart, but now he hangs out in a castle in Italy with afull military force at his standby. On the page, this is a one note “I’m so eeeevil!!” villain. In Serkis’ hands he is a satirical sketch of that stereotype, while also posessing real menace. Finally, Helen Mirren brings her usual fiery charm and considerable ability to the grandmother character. She seems like an old shrew, but it’s a joy watching her blossom beyond it. We see where she is going, but Mirren makes the ride a blast–it’s all about the journey in this case.

Ultimately, thats more or less true of Inkheart as a whole. It isn’t a truly momentous fantasy, or a story with many layers. It functions exactly like the tales its hero reads his daughter at bedtime; it gives us the highs and lows of a good rollicking yarn and it doesn’t rely upon the tale itself to entertain. Instead, it hands off that duty to the performers of the story–in this case Bettany, Broadbent, Mirren and Serkis. They reach in and pull their characters from the mire of generality, breathing in them the spark of the individual. They are the real Silvertongues.

 

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2 Responses to “DVD Showcase: Strong, vibrant cast bring ‘Inkheart’ to life”

  1. dhaRma shark June 25, 2009 at 7:08 am #

    Had a chance to see this last night…Although he tried with all his might, Brendan Fraser did not ruin this movie. Bettany was strong and stole almost every scene he was in. Wonder what it was like for the cast to go to work and be acted under the table every single day…

    • Bartleby June 25, 2009 at 7:32 am #

      I’d watch a whole movie based on around Bettany’s character Dustfinger. He has come a long way since A Knight’s Tale. Whats up with Connelly playing his partner in everything now? The new trailer for ‘Creation’, about the life of Charles Darwin has Bettany as Chuck and J-Co as his wife, Emma. She must keep him on a short leash.

      Anyways, the IMDB page for Creation, where you can also find the trailer: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0974014/

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