UNDERRATED: Inkheart (2008)

Inkheart (Germany/ UK/ USA, 2008)
Directed by Iain Softley
Starring Brendan Fraser, Eliza Bennett, Paul Bettany, Helen Mirren

Iain Softley has to be one of the most underappreciated directors working today. His films span multiple genres and have featured many of Hollywood's most bankable stars, from Angelina Jolie and Helena Bonham Carter to Kevin Spacey and John Hurt. But notwithstanding the cult status which Hackers now enjoys, his films have consistently underperformed at the box office, with much lesser films taking the limelight away from his often sterling efforts. 
Inkheart follows this somewhat depressing pattern, being a family fantasy film with a bankable star which failed to set the world alight when it was first released. The film was steamrollered at the December box office by Bedtime Stories, a Disney film with a similar premise run into the ground through lazy scripting and a typically poor turn by Adam Sandler. Revisiting Inkheart nearly seven years later, it has its fair share of problems, but also sweeps you along with wonder and invention in a way that Sandler could never conceive.
One of the most important things that any fantasy story must do is to have confidence in its own identity. Fantasy hinges so strongly on creating a special, all-enveloping world into which an audience can enter, and to achieve this properly there is no room for being self-conscious or half-hearted. It's still possible for a fantasy film to be snarky or satirical, along the lines of Shrek or The Princess Bride, but both of these films still go through a lengthy process of world-building, even as they send up the bricks and mortar they are using to build.
On top of everything else, Inkheart succeeds over Bedtime Stories because it isn't afraid to be earnest and dive in head first. Bedtime Stories constantly got cold feet, feeling the need to pull back to Sandler to dimly remind the audience that everything they were seeing was artificial and therefore not worth caring about. Inkheart rejects this approach, asking its audience to accept a lot of fantasy iconography (and a few leaps in logic) and be swept along over the course of its running time. Comparing the two is like choosing between a slow, pedestrian stroll and an occasionally bumpy ride on a magic carpet.
Having established its confidence credentials early on, Inkheart then attempts to tackle one of the oldest tropes in fantasy fiction: characters from the fictional world coming to life in the real world. Not only is this one of the oldest characteristics of the genre, it is also one of the most overdone and often most lazily executed, whether in animated children's fare like The Pagemaster or horror films like Stay Alive. The blurring of fantasy and reality is such a staple of these kinds of stories that any film that seeks to play it completely straight must bring something very special to the table.
As before, Inkheart comes up trumps by virtue of its own self-confidence. A lesser film would have devoted a lot more time to explaining very specifically the mechanics of silver tongues, in a way that may have made sense but would have been less engaging from a dramatic standpoint. Inkheart opens with this fascinating concept and uses it as one of the film's foundations, asking us to build upon it for the rest of the running time. Crucially, it keeps an element of mystery to Brendan Fraser's condition while still putting limitations on his power, ensuring that the film neither shows its hand too soon nor descends into nothing but rule-breaking and improvisation.
By centring its plot on a man who can literally bring pages of a book to life, Inkheart achieves the rare feat of being a film about literature which is actually quite cinematic. Writing or reading is not the most interesting activity to watch on film; it's very hard to convey the creative process without going overboard with multimedia (along the lines of Howl) or slipping into well-behaved tedium (Bright Star). Normally such an earnest approach to a subject matter could make the film unintentially hilarious; it would sound like the Monty Python writers' sketch without the irony. But Inkheart pulls it off, creating a memorable paean to reading which is also a really fun ride.
The film conveys its theme about the power of reading and imagination in two distinct ways. The first way, at the beginning of the film, focusses on the intricate craftsmanship of the written word, including the visual artistry of a given book. The scenes of Mo and his daughter searching through the dusty bookshop for a copy of Inkheart reflect both the physicality of literature and its bespoke nature - qualities which our digitally homogenous culture is in danger of losing forever. The search for Inkheart is like a more uplifting version of Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate, but without the outright contempt for the audience's intelligence.
The second stylistic decision that Inkheart employs lies in how its visual world is rendered. Like Christopher Nolan, Softley was very keen to do as many of the special effects as possible using old-fashioned mechanical techniques, again ensuring that artists' creativity would be on show in a bespoke manner. On the one hand, this gives the film more of a grounded feel, again preventing the fantasy world  from feeling adlibbed; on the other hand, it prevents the film from feeling generic, avoiding visual similarities with something like the Harry Potter films which rely much more on digital effects. Coincidentally, most of the CG effects shots are provided by Double Negative, who would later work on Nolan's Inception.
With all of this hard work in place, Inkheart steadily builds into a pretty detailed examination of the pressures of creativity and how it can be exploited for evil ends. Again, we are in very familiar territory; there are dozens of films in which a protagonist struggles to control a gift or power bestowed upon them. But rather than focus on the plight of Mo on a small scale, as most coming-of-age films would do, Softley puts the issue on a big stage, creating stakes which are huge and yet intimately tied to the characters.
One of the reasons why this works so well is the casting of Brendan Fraser. Ever since the success of The Mummy and its sequels, Fraser has appeared in a whole range of films in which he often seems unwilling to be there. Like Bruce Willis, it's relatively easy to read how committed to a given project he is, with both actors losing a lot of energy and coming over as more needlessly acerbic when their heart isn't in it. Here, however, any discomfort that Fraser had about the project actually plays into the hands of the character; it makes all the awkwardness and reluctance surrounding his power all the more palpable. It may even be his best all-round performance since the far-too-little-seen The Passion of Darkly Noon.
Fraser is well complimented by the cast that surrounds him, with Softley continuing his knack for spot-on casting. Andy Serkis has played villains and thugs on numerous occasions, but he still brings a bespoke quality to Capricorn, and his impulsive, ruthless streak plays off Fraser's lethargy very nicely. Helen Mirren is increasingly becoming pigeonholed as a somewhat bitchy pensioner who kicks arse (see Red 2, for instance), but here her sardonic qualities make for welcome comic relief. And Paul Bettany remains as watchable as ever, bringing a weight and desperation to Dustfinger which keeps the plot moving (watch out, too, for a brief appearance by his real-life wife Jennifer Connelly).
For everything that Inkheart gets right, it is somewhat blighted by a couple of flaws. The first involves its plot, which in spite of everything feels convoluted and derivative in places. David Lindsay-Abaire has a mixed record as a screenwriter, having previously penned Rabbit Hole (both for stage and screen) as well as Robots and Oz the Great and Powerful. It's clear that fantasy isn't his natural game, and at times he wrestles unsuccessfully to make the story rise above all the references to other works.
The second problem with the film is one which it shares with the opening act of Stardust: the story and action often doesn't feel 'big' enough to be on the big screen. The storytelling style of Inkheart is undoubtedly cinematic, and yet the early action and quirky production values lend themselves just as much to television. Like Stardust the film eventually gets into its stride and begins to justify itself much more adequately, but things do begin in a manner which doesn't instill a lot of confidence.
Inkheart is a very solid and underrated family fantasy which makes the best use of its cast and is entertaining throughout. Despite being partially hamstrung by its script and style of storytelling, it raises a lot of interesting issues about creativity and imagination, engaging an audience with both brains and spectacle. Ultimately it's neither the most original nor the most compelling fantasy film ever made, but it certainly didn't deserve to be quite so overlooked.


NEXT REVIEW: Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)