Inkheart is a scattered collection of ideas, most of them cavalierly mixed together and barely fleshed out. Director Iain Softley's adaptation of Cornelia Funke's 2004 best-seller is a fantasy film built from spare parts - deliberately so, as it involves a hero known as a "silvertongue" who, by reading aloud, can bring fictional characters and objects off the page and into the real world. Shortly after the birth of his daughter, bookbinder Mo Folchart (Brendan Fraser) unintentionally transports villains from the titular swords-and-sorcery novel into our universe, and sends back in their place - because this supernatural gift is of a tit-for-tat variety - his wife Resa (Sienna Guillory). Determined to set things right, he sets out to find a copy of the rare "Inkheart," a quest that years later leads him and pre-teen daughter Meggie (Eliza Hope Bennett) to Europe. There, they discover not only the highly sought-after paperback but also trouble in the form of Dustfinger (Paul Bettany), a fire-dancer who, eager to return to his book world, hands Mo and Meggie over to chief "Inkheart" scoundrel Capricorn (Andy Serkis), who's using silvertongues to make himself rich, collect famous literary creatures (a tick-tocking crocodile, winged monkeys, a unicorn) and usher into our dimension the monstrous Shadow.
Coming on the heels of K-Pax and The Skeleton Key, Inkheart continues director Softley's fixation on people navigating alternate and/or competing realities. Such a thematic throughline, however, makes him an auteur only of a decidedly middling sort, as his latest is about as clumsy - though not nearly as offensive - as his prior efforts. Jagged edits, flat cinematography, and incomplete character development are all prime facets of his saga, which repeatedly flirts with, and then manages to avoid, coherence and subtly. Prose's ability to make the unreal come alive is, naturally, the foundation upon which the story is built. Yet from the outset, Softley undercuts his Reading is Fundamental message through blasé indifference to establishing the central conceit - why is Mo a silvertongue? How hasn't he already told 12-year-old Meggie the circumstances surrounding her mom's disappearance? - and, more problematically, relying on jackhammer expository blather to convey theme. "The written word is a powerful thing," opines Mo to Meggie, a trailer-ready proclamation that neatly and definitively sums up everything the film has to say, thus making the remaining hour-plus an exercise in superficial run-jump-hide PG action.
Between clunky direction and a medieval castle milieu that always feels like a set, meaningful notions about the relationship between art and its consumers - as well as its makers, as the author of "Inkheart" (Jim Broadbent) eventually factors into the proceedings - are left by the wayside. Despite its interest in creative expression, Inkheart's hurried pace, shorthand characterizations and regularly scheduled set-pieces obliterate all but the faintest traces of lucid thought, so that by the time the cacophonous conclusion arrives, any hope that the film will contemplate the personal nature of reading and writing has long since been erased. The same goes for the struggle of Dustfinger, who proclaims his desire to exert free will and act differently (i.e. less selfishly) than his author/father envisioned, and yet whose conduct seems driven not by a struggle within but merely by narrative requirements that something frustrate Mo's derring-do. Consequently, the plot soon becomes a series of repetitive stops and starts, as Mo, Meggie and their snobby great aunt Elinor (Helen Mirren) attempt to foil Capricorn, and Dustfinger routinely mucks up such plans out of inanely blind self-interest.
As for those L. Frank Baum and J.M. Barrie-imagined beasts, Inkheart amusingly trots them out - as well as Rapunzel, Toto and, as the de facto love interest for Meggie, the forty thieves-pursued Farid (Rafi Gabron) - yet never cleverly incorporates them into the story. They're just passing literary nods in keeping with the sketchiness of the entire enterprise, which also extends to (thankfully seldom used) green-screen effects and one-note performances. Serkis' Capricorn is prosaically evil, Bennett's Meggie is spunky and resourceful, and Mirren's Elinor, dressed in a series of head-wraps, is a braying, flailing caricature of, well, it's not exactly clear what the Oscar winner is going for with her absurdly broad turn. Nonetheless, at least Elinor elicits a visceral reaction, which is more than can be said about Fraser's dashing Mo, another of the strapping star's kid-friendly heroes proficient at leaping, yelling, punching and pratfalling, but - when asked to express quiet sadness or regret - capable of emoting on a level only slightly above that of a brick wall.