In the case of Inkheart, the film is based on a trilogy of books by German childrens author Cornelia Funke. Funkes book Inkheart (2003) proved a popular success primarily in Europe and she followed it with two sequels, Inkspell (2005) and Inkdeath (2007), which continue the adventures of the characters in and out of the world inside the story. Other Cornelia Funke books have been adapted to the screen with the fine childrens fantasy The Thief Lord (2006) and several non-fantastical films based on her Wild Chicks books about an unruly girl gang. Funke sold the rights to Inkheart to New Line Cinema, the producers also of The Lord of the Rings and The Golden Compass, and made a point of staying on board as a producer.
Inkheart was placed in the hands of Iain Softley, a British director who has made acclaimed works such as Backbeat (1994) and The Wings of the Dove (1997) but has turned out consistently banal and underwhelming work whenever he has touched genre material with the likes of Hackers (1995), K-PAX (2001), The Skeleton Key (2005) and Curve (2015). Under Iain Softley, Inkheart becomes another of the fantasy almost-rans. New Line Cinema clearly did not like the film and it sat in distribution limbo for some time before being granted a cinematic release where it only did middling business.
The idea of characters coming out of books has been played in various meta-fictions before see the likes of I, Madman (1989), In the Mouth of Madness (1995) and Stranger Than Fiction (2006) and others dealing with the same happening with film The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Last Action Hero (1993) etc. Perhaps the closest that Inkheart comes to is the Doctor Who episode The Mind Robber (1968) or the films Dream One (1984) and The Pagemaster (1994), which had characters venturing into a literal realm of fiction, although in all of these the idea was played the other way around people entering a realm where fictional characters existed rather than emerging out of it as here. Far better than all of these in terms of out-and-out hilarity and mind-boggling absurdism in the play between reality and the realm of fiction is Jasper Ffordes Tuesday Next books, which would make for a great series of films someday even if it would take a total madman to come anywhere near conducting a faithful adaptation.
I liked Inkheart, the characters, the lushness of production there being some particularly beautiful photography of the Italian countryside and a fine cast line-up. But the more I thought about it afterwards, the more Inkheart failed to work satisfyingly as a fantasy. The idea is certainly an interesting one at least at the outset. The film has a playfully appealing promise as we see all manner of items from fiction littered in the background, including gingerbread houses, unicorns, appearances from Toto and the flying monkeys of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), the ticking crocodile from Peter Pan (1904).
Unfortunately, all of this is upfront showmanship that leads precisely nowhere. The idea of Brendan Fraser as a silvertongue who can bring objects from fiction into this world is never explored any more than that it is just a power he has and we are given no explanation of how and crucially why it works. I kept wanting to ask questions about how the premise worked can a character from fiction die once they are brought into the real world (as Andy Serkis does at the end, along with numerous of his cohorts) when their fate is spelled out in the story (as is the case with Paul Bettanys Dustfinger)? When they are killed in the real world, does that mean they are erased from the book as well? Once a character has emerged from fiction into the real world, what happens to the character in the story? Surely there must be some kind of absence in the narrative that would be noticeable to people reading. More importantly, what happens to the people who are transported into the story it would certainly be an interesting film that dealt with their problems and what would happen to them. For that matter, how did Resa emerge back out of the story after being trapped in there?
Unfortunately, once the basic premise is set up, the film has no interest in exploring it any further than the plot requires and the rest of the film is spent solely in terms diagrammatic momentum where characters move from Point A to Point B to Point C and back, are captured, escape, are recaptured again and so on. Certainly, the film is pitched as a fantasy adventure and in this sense, the running around is doing what is required of it, but the lack of anything more than that is frustrating. The film arrives at a routine big CGI-driven climax where the young heroine manifests The Shadow out of the book, followed by a desperate attempt to save the world etc etc. Everything is wound up in a predictably happy ending.
Brendan Fraser goes through the film with the same blandly square-jawed nice guy hero expression that has served him for the better part of the last decade. Surprisingly, Fraser was Cornelia Funkes original choice for the role, she having based the character in the books on him so it is a case of the film honouring the authors intentions exactly in this case. It is good to see Andy Serkis in a villainous live-action role, even if the part is no more than evil dressed-in-black-bad-guy-with-a-world-conquering-plan by the numbers. Helen Mirren, who went onto this part almost straight after winning an Oscar for The Queen (2006), plays the largely throwaway role of the dotty aunt. The one who stands out the most is Paul Bettany in a role of interesting moral shadings and ambiguities that he makes into a character one cares about by the end of the film certainly, far more so than banal hero Brendan Fraser.