It's hard to go wrong with source material like the children's fantasy novel Inkheart. German author Cornelia Funke's series about a girl who discovers that her father can bring stories to life by reading aloud is so popular it has sold more than 15 million copies and been translated into 37 languages. Yet, while the film (rated PG for adventure action and brief language) does a serviceable job staying true to Funke's vision, it never manages to capture the magic of her written words.
Part of the problem stems from director Iain Softley's decision to cast 16-year-old actress Eliza Bennett as 12-year-old Meggie Folchart. Bennett is a perfectly good performer, but by virtue of her age she's unable to impart the precocious independence that made Meggie such a loveable character. The rest of the cast, particularly Helen Mirren as Meggie's autocratic Aunt Elinor, fares better. Brendan Fraser does fatherhood proud as Mo Folchart, and fans will find that if Paul Bettany looks a little cleaner and younger than the Dustfinger they'd imagined, he captures the world-weariness of the fire-eater who longs to return to his fictional world nonetheless.
The movie also stumbles by editing out the literary grace notes that made the tale a love-letter to reading. It pays lip service to this ideal by having characters say how much they love books, but it drops the finer details that illustrated that love. No notes written in Elvish pass hands between Meggie and Mo here, Meggie never falls into her imagination curled up in an alcove of Elinor's library, and we never get a chance to see Mo's beautiful work as a restorer of old books. Granted, when turning a 550-page novel into a two-hour script, some elements will have to be lost. But it would have been better to lose a few of the back-and-forth action sequences, which grew tedious even in the novel.
That said, Inkheart the movie is full of wonderful imagery and will no doubt entertain children who aren't familiar with the book. But readers of the original may find it rather empty.