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“Inkheart,” the screen version of Cornelia Funke’s internationally renowned best-selling novel, is a case of a good children's book assigned to the wrong director. Iain Softley fails to bring the magic of the page to the big screen in a movie that's narratively troubled and dominated by middling special effects and cute talking animals.

I had strong reservations about New Line's previous f/x driven children's saga, “The Golden Compass,” which was also poorly executed by its mismatched helmer, Chris Weitz, but “Inkheart” is even a worse experience, a dull movie, which will have hard time keeping children (and their parents) involved.

There's a market (and profit) for children's fare, as evidenced by the “Harry Potter” franchise, “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “Eragon,” “Stardust,” and even “The Golden Compass,” which was a commercial failure domestically but a big hit internationally.

On paper, all the elements for a thrilling children's adventure are in existence, but  “Inkheart” is unable to integrate them into a coherent yarn.  Structurally messy, and lacking vision, the movie dwells on the less interesting aspects of the rather complex plot (for such fare) before reaching its unsatisfying conclusion.  Worse yet, the movie almost negates the essence of the book, which stresses why we love reading and the mythic value of storytelling, as it passes along from one generation to the next.

Like “Golden Compass,” the protagonist is a young, bright, lonely girl. Meggie (Eliza Bennett) wishes she could trade her boring life for one of the exciting adventures she loves to read about in books, not realizing that her wish could come true. 

The yarn dscribes how Meggie, her father Mo (Brendan Fraser), her great-aunt Elinor, and the mysterious stranger Dustfinger (Paul Bettany) are drawn into a web of intrigue as they confront the ruthless villain Capricorn and his band of rogues.  


Ever since her mother’s disappearance nine years ago, Meggie hasn’t stayed in one place for long.  Her father Mo, a bookbinder by trade, has kept them on the move, justifying their travels with one bad excuse after another.  Mo has not been completely honest with his daughter, burying a secret from her, that he possesses extraordinary magical powers.  When Mo reads aloud, he can bring characters from books to life, which is basicaly the fantasy of most children when their parents read them fairy tales and bedtime stories. 


When Meggie was a child, Mo was reading from a book called “Inkheart,” when a group of rough and dangerous characters toppled from its pages onto the floor, among them the sadistic scoundrel Capricorn and the sly fire-breathing juggler Dustfinger. 


He is shocked and horrified to realize that his very wife had disappeared with them.  As he read Capricorn and his band out of “Inkheart,” she vanished into the book.  As a result, Mo vowed never to read aloud again.  Moreover, since that fateful night, he’s been on the run, avoiding the characters he brought to life, trying to protect the book that holds the only hope of finding Meggie’s mother.  


For a while director Softley and screenwriter are able to keep the mystery alive, arousing some suspense about the unfolding of the plot.  Capricorn has been chasing Mo for years.  He wants Mo to “read” a terrifying creature known as The Shadow out of “Inkheart.”   With The Shadow under his control, Capricorn will be able to completely dominate his newfound world.  Then Capricorn plans to destroy the book, making his evil scheme irreversible.   When Capricorn’s men finally catch up with Mo and Meggie at her great-aunt Elinor’s mansion, they are all kidnapped and taken back to Capricorn’s mountain hideout.   Knowing that this is his last chance to save his wife and Meggie’s mother, Mo must do everything in his power to stop Capricorn.


What follows is a series of semi-thrilling escapes, semi-harrowing pursuits, semi-unexpected turns of events, conveyed in an unimaginative way for an adventure of this kind.   Meggie, Mo, Elinor, and Dustfinger (a trickster of mixed loyalties who wants to escape back into the book) form a peculiar and unlikely band of heroes, united by one mission, how to foil Capricorn.  To achieve their goal, they must find the author of “Inkheart” and force him to write a new ending. 


Softley, who previously helmed the equally disappointing thriller “The Skeleton Key,” with Kate Hudson, is capable of making decent films, as was evident early on in his career with “The Wings of the Dove” (1997), which boasted an exquisite performance from Helena Bonham Carter.  But with is assignment, he proves to be the wrong filmmaker, failing to connect with the text in a way that will bring it to life.


Sadly, Softley is not even good wiht his ensemble of actors.  While Brendan Fraser and Eliza Bennett (Nanny McPhee) are well cast as the father and daughter, and acquit themselves more or less honorably, a group of talented British thespians, such as Paul Bettany, Jim Broadbent, Helen Mirren, and Andy Serkis, are misdirected, rendering broad (borderline hammy) interpretations.