Here’s a relatively simple question I’d like you all to answer. When confronted with a fantasy movie, would you rather it be a) unrelentingly grim, completely humourless and sickeningly self-regarding, like what Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was, or b) actually watchable? There’s a subset that’s absent, which is “fantastically well-made and a joy to discover”, but I can’t actually think of any fantasy movie that fits that bill, so I’ve left it out.
But that second subset, with its easily attainable remit of not being irredeemably awful, is the one we’ll be focusing on for now, as that’s the one Inkheart succeeds in fulfilling. The story of Inkheart is this story: a man who can bring fictional characters to life must undo the damage he did 12 years ago when he brought an arch-villain out of a fantasy novel and into a giant megalomaniac’s castle in Italy. Or something. It makes more sense in the movie, but only marginally. But! Its cheerfully aware of its own silliness, thus making all the awkward plotting in the world easily forgivable in the face of Helen Mirren exclaiming “What in the name of Thomas Hardy?” Yes.
There’s a very quick way of telling if an ostensibly stupid movie is going to be good or bad, and it’s quite easy to follow. If Brendan Fraser is in it, it’s going to be good. If he’s not, it’s probably going to be awful. Observe: The Mummy – good. Sahara – woeful. Airheads – good. The Transformers franchise – repugnant. It works everytime, except when it doesn’t. (There are anomalies on both sides, of course. The Mummy Returns was quite rubbish, and National Treasure was eminently watchable.) But luckily for Inkheart, a depressingly old-looking Brendan Fraser does indeed prove to be the watermark of goodness, and its his always-reliable everyman, sure-I’ll-come-to-your-birthday-party-kid qualities that mostly carry the movie.
He features as the “silvertongue” Mo, who accidentally summoned a band of ne’er-do-wells into our world while simultaneously banishing his wife into their medieval fantasy kingdom simply by reading a bed-time story (also named “Inkheart”) aloud to his daughter (which is an odd way of promoting literacy amongst the youngfolk. “Hey kids, want to lose your loved ones? Read a book why not!” But anyway.) He spends his time chasing down the book into which old wifey vanished, and then the villain who must be smacked down. This is all very much filed under “derring-do”.
Helping him on his entirely self-inflicted quest are his 12-year-old daughter, Meggie (played by Eliza Bennett in a shocking “child actor who doesn’t make one wish one’s eyeballs were being consumed by some sort of zombie jaguar” role), Crotchety Old Woman (the aforementioned Helen Mirren), some guy who’s also from the “Inkheart” book and needs Fraser to read him back into it or something (Paul Bettany), and Mr. 40 Thieves (Rafi Gavron). Hindering him on his entirely self-inflicted quest are Evil-Gollum-Man (Andy Serkis), some bumbling lackeys, and excellently, Super Hans from Peep Show.
So the cast is all good and proper, and the story is pure hokum. What tips this movie into the favourable end of the agreeability scale?
Well, for one thing, the visuals. Not the CGI – which at least manages to not be annoyingly distracting for the most part – but the actual scenery. Inkheart features lots and lots of shots of the Italian Riviera, and lots and lots of shots of magnificent old Italian architecture. This is wonderful – not just because it gives the film a very earthy beauty that’s very distinct from the humdrum green-screen wideshots seen in most movies, but also because ohmyword there are actual colours in this film. I’m so very sick of seeing grey palettes. And also blue/orangey ones.
Also, Inkheart somehow reminded me of the excellent video game The Longest Journey. Both tales place an emphasis on the importance of story and imagination as a vital part of our day-to-day lives. In TLJ, the world has split into two distinct realms, one based on science and logic, the other on fantasy and magic, and as the barrier starts to break down, April Ryan has to bridge the gap to restore balance; in Inkheart, the world of literature crosses over with the real world, and Mo and company must make things right.
Too, both use the concept of a story being told within a story. In TLJ, the game’s narrative is all part of a story we see being told by an old woman in a brief opening cutscene; in Inkheart, the story the characters are escaping from is also called “Inkheart”, and it finishes (SPOILERSPOILERSPOILER) with Meggie writing the end of the story as it happens (ENDSPOILERENDSPOILERENDSPOILER). Everything’s so hopelessly meta these days. An excellent joke: What’s meta for?
A final note of disappointment: the film is directed and produced by a man named Iain Softley, and yet at no point was the tagline “Softly Softley Makey Movie” used. FOR SHAME, etc.