Although it took him some time to cotton onto the fact, Mo Folchart (Brendan Fraser) is a Silvertongue, which means that simply by reading the text of a storybook out loud he can bring the characters in it to life. He first discovered it when he read his baby daughter her bedtime stories, but now it is twelve years later and Meggie (Eliza Bennett) is leading a peripatetic life since her mother disappeared, following her book buyer father around Europe and never settling down. What she does not know is that Mo has an ulterior motive for searching the shelves of second hand and antiquarian bookshops, for he is looking for the long out of print novel Inkheart - where his wife is hidden inside.
Poor old Inkheart didn't enjoy much luck when it was released, after being delayed for a year and then opening to muted reactions and middling box office returns at best. Based on the first in a series of novels by Cornelia Funke, it was presumably hoped that a series of movies would in turn be made, but judging by the disappointing reaction that didn't seem immediately likely. If anything the film version resembled another German fantasy, The Neverending Story, which had an identical faith in the power of the written word, only this time the fiction was taken into real world instead of the other way around.
So if that eighties film was anything to go by, Inkheart had some life in it yet thanks to home video and television showings. In spite of its neglected charms, however, there was a sense that it never reached its creative potential on the screen: imagine a film where every book every written could come to life, then watch a film where about three books come to life, and then only in bits and pieces. So we see Rapunzel for about five seconds, and The Wizard of Oz plays a part yet they only read out the parts with the tornado and Toto, so we don't have a grand showdown with the Wicked Witch - just her flying monkeys (which still manage to be less creepy than the ones in the Judy Garland classic).
That said, there are some very fine special effects at work here, with vivid creatures and setpieces, all to back up a cast of reliable British thesps who dizzy around behind Brendan Fraser as he struggles to stay in the limelight. The narrative has it that Silvertongue has read out too many passages of Inkheart and now its villains have appeared in the real world, but the chief bad guy, Capricorn (Andy Serkis), wants more of his power to cross over, specifically the dreaded Shadow, an all-consuming force of terror that is suspiciously similar to the Nothing in Neverending Story. The method this rogue plans to use is to kidnap Mo and use him to read out the relevant passages, which is why he has kidnapped his wife who landed within the book in an exchange of sorts (Sienna Guillory).
If there's a strength to all of this, it is that intelligence informs the characters; not all of them are bright - the henchman Flatnose (Steve Speirs) stands out as a nice example of a dimwit who makes the others look sharper witted - but our heroes are clever without being know-it-alls and the stars relish their chance to play to their skills without betraying the essential gee-whizz breathlessness of it all. Helen Mirren takes the role of a dotty aunt and makes her someone to respect after initial reservations, Paul Bettany is the firebreathing Dustfinger, a character from the book who wishes to get back at any cost, and Jim Broadbent has fun as the novelist who started the trouble by writing Inkheart in the first place. A few things rankle, such as Meggie apparently holding the record for the longest arms on a twelve-year-old when she has to find something to scribble on at the finale, but its message about the worth of reading is welcome, and if it's more modest than you feel was intended, it is diverting and fashioned with affection. Music by Javier Navarrete.