If you’re someone desperately looking for a film the whole family can enjoy then this is the one for you, says Ryan Pollard who takes a closer look at director Iain Softley’s fantasy-adventure.
Based on the critically-received novel by Cornelia Funke (first in a series), Inkheart follows a father and daughter into the strange mystical world of books and literature, via his unique magical ability to bring characters to life just by reading out loud. This trait is inherited amongst a special number of people known as “Silver Tongues”, and Mortimer “Mo” Folchart (Brendan Fraser) is the honest soul in search of his long missing wife, who is lost between the pages after an unfortunate accident that required him and his daughter, Meggie (Eliza Hope Bennett), to go on the road in search of the author of this book (Jim Broadbent) whilst escaping the clutches of the villainous Capricorn (Andy Serkis).
When released at around Christmas in 2008, Inkheart unfairly got overshadowed at the box-office by cinematic garbage-piles such as Four Christmases, Marley and Me and the similarly-themed Bedtime Stories, as well as getting very sniffy reviews from critics decrying it to be “heavy on clichés and light on “charm” (What do they know?). However, as it stands, Inkheart is the true holiday treat of that year, and is undeniably one of the most underrated family films of all time. Even to this day, this is a handsomely filmed and ambitiously crafted fantasy adventure that has a lot going for it, and demonstrates that family movies don’t have to be stupid to be accepted.
The film is helmed by Iain Softley, who is one of Britain’s most versatile, as well as underrated, directors, who has worked in many different genres, and whatever he does, he does it really well with pure care and affection. This is clearly evident through his filmography, including Backbeat, Wings of the Dove, K-PAX, and the equally underrated Hackers (which famously launched the career of Angelina Jolie), which like Inkheart also proved that films targeted at younger audiences need to be neither trite nor insulting. What’s remarkable is that it’s taking a book that is essentially about books, which can be a very difficult thing to adapt for the big screen, and yet the film translates that high concept in a way that even the youngest viewers can understand the complexity involved in the story.
The cinematography is gorgeous throughout and Roger Pratt manages to give this film a vibrancy that perfectly goes well with the narrative. Pratt is known to be a frequent collaborator of Terry Gilliam, and there are clear echoes of Gilliam and Guillermo del Toro in here, which is no bad thing at all. The Italian locales combined with the set design makes a richly dense world you can easily lose yourself in, and while the special effects are variable at best, the practical scenery more than makes up for it in spades. It is essentially British in its production and there’s real UK talent right at the heart of it.
The film has an outstanding cast and everyone here is pretty much at the top of their game; the lunk-jawed Brendan Fraser gives a perfectly solid performance as the apparent main hero of the piece, however, whilst Fraser gets top-billing, the real star of the film is undoubtedly Paul Bettany. Bettany has always been one of our great acting talents, and here, he completely steals the movie from under Brendan Fraser’s nose as the shifty fire-breathing juggler, giving off a charismatic performance that refuses to completely fit the mould of either hero or villain, plus his rapport with Eliza Hope Bennett is particularly strong. Bennett herself is a real revelation, carrying most of the film through her naturalistic charm and likeability, which makes her a real rising star to watch out for in the future. As for the rest of the cast, we have a charming Jim Broadbent, a haughty Helen Mirren, a nuanced Sienna Guillory and a fearsome, yet scenery-chewing, Andy Serkis, who is fantastic as ever.
In the end, what makes Inkheart special from the usual family-fair that gets dished out at cinemas and on TV is that it has real heart and soul. It’s charming, whimsical, has dazzling imagery, an intelligent narrative driving it and really wonderful performances. But the real hero is Iain Softely, who has made a film that, even though unperformed at the time of its theatrical release, deserves multiple viewings and makes for essential family wathcing. If you’re someone who is desperately looking for a film the whole family can enjoy, then this is the one for you.