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Inkheart is a best-selling novel by Cornelia Funke about the power of reading. There is something truly meta-magical about reading a book about reading a book, with a character who brings book characters to life. And no matter how creative the visuals, it is inevitably less magical when it leaves the world of words and imagination for the world of pixels and screens.

Brendan Fraser plays Mortimer, who is not just a book doctor (restorer of old tomes) but something of a book whisperer. At least, books seem to whisper to him. And he is a “silvertongue,” which means that when he reads a book aloud he has the power to call its characters into being. But he has no control of this power. He is as likely to bring to life a wicked character as a good one. And in order to maintain balance, when he brings a character out of a book, a real-life character gets swooshed into the book. When he was reading a book called Inkheart, characters named Dustfinger (Paul Bettany) and Capricorn (Andy Serkis) came out and Mortimer’s wife Resa (Sienna Guillory) went in. Now she is stuck there until he can find the book again and try to bring her back. So, he and his daughter Maggie (Eliza Hope Bennett) are constantly on the road, searching bookstores and trying to stay away from Dustfinger, who wants to be read back into his book so he can be with his family, and Capricorn, who wants more characters read out of the book so they can help him to enjoy life in our world (he is very fond of duct tape) and create all kinds of misery and oppression (he was written as a bad guy, after all).

The story shimmers with imaginative details. A stuttering silvertongue produces incomplete real-world characters with book text on their faces. Mortimer’s aunt Elinor (Oscar-winner Helen Mirren) has a fabulous library and vastly prefers books to people. She has a sign with “Don’t Even Think of Wasting My Time!” in three languages on her front gate. And when it is time to search for the author of the book “Inkheart” (played by James Broadbent), there are some lovely and subtle variations on the theme of reality vs. fantasy. Fraser is as always an appealing leading man and the trio of British stars bring wit and conviction to their off-beat characters — so much conviction, in fact, that they throw things a little out of balance. The story itself makes an uneasy transition to screen, the very books-and-words premise of the story in effect undercutting its translation to film. The story’s silvertongue may bring books to life but the director and screenwriter are less effective.

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