Mo Folchart and his young daughter Meggie travel from bookstore to bookstore, buying and repairing rare books. Meggie is less interested in all the dusty old novels, however, than she is in the adventures held within their pages. Adventures that she wishes could somehow be her own. She and Dad are always on the move traveling the world, but to her, life feels … boring.
Enter a mysterious scarred man called Dustfinger. And enter the fact that Meggie’s dad has a secret magical ability he’s been hiding from her. Suddenly boredom turns into awe and wonder as she discovers that her very own father is a silvertongue—a person who can, by reading a story aloud, import its characters into our world.
There are other things Meggie doesn’t know, too. When she was an infant, for instance, Mo read to her from a book called Inkheart. From its pages appeared a group of bizarre characters—including the fire juggler Dustfinger and an evil villain named Capricorn. But to his horror, Mo discovered that when someone or something comes out of a story, someone in the real world may be sucked in. On this darkly magical occasion Meggie’s mom was pulled into the world of Inkheart.
Mo has been searching these last nine years for a way to get her back. And he’s vowed never to read aloud again.
“The written word is a powerful thing. You have to be very careful with it,” Mo tells his daughter. And this repeated mantra of the power, knowledge and even danger of literature allegorically underlies the Inkheart tale.
Though Dustfinger wants to be a good and trustworthy man, he fears that is impossible because he was originally written into the Inkheart story as weak and cowardly. But with time he realizes that his good choices will help make him the man he wants to be—never mind who he was supposedly meant to be. When Inkheart‘s author (Fenoglio) tells the scarred man what becomes of him in the book, Dustfinger retorts, “You don’t control my fate. I’m not just some character in a book. And you are not my god!” Refusing to conform to the expectations of others or use the excuse “I’m just written that way,” he exercises free will in unexpectedly heroic ways.
Mo dreams of reuniting his own family. He is a loving and protective dad. And he’ll do nearly anything to bring his wife back into the real world. In fact, the only thing he won’t risk in that endeavor is Meggie’s well-being. When Meggie is attacked, for instance, Mo is willing to sacrifice himself to save her.
The fire juggler, too, dreams of reuniting with his wife and child, and he longs for the simple pleasures of his family. He pledges to be a different man when he returns. Then, as if to prove that he’s changed, he quietly and selflessly lets his friend off the hook when he becomes aware that forcing Mo to make good on a promise to him could cost Mo dearly. But Mo is a man of his word; he chases after Dustfinger and follows through on his vow to help him get back to his family.
Early on, Aunt Elinor’s thoughtless remarks to Meggie illustrate the need for a mother in a young girl’s life. As for Aunt Elinor herself, she’s spent her life on the sidelines, living vicariously through books instead of being inspired by them. But by putting family first, she’s drawn into a vivid saga in which she becomes a valiant heroine.
Mo’s (and several others’) silvertongue powers are obviously magical and at the core of the story’s action. Where these powers come from or how they work is never explored. But they do work. The magical reader simply reads a text aloud and characters (such as Rapunzel), objects (the gold from Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves) and events (the twister from The Wizard of Oz) materialize.
Metaphors, meanwhile, abound involving the relationship of the creator to his creation when Fenoglio is enlisted. Exchanges involve hardwired personalities, free will, predestination and the capacity of an evil being to openly rebel.
One of Capricorn’s thugs is very superstitious and wears a good luck charm. At one point he’s spooked and cries out, “Spirits, I repel thee!” Another time Dustfinger tries to frighten him by saying, “By the bones in this coffin, I curse you.”
During a brief reading of Ali Baba, the narrator says, “By the will of Allah, he had forgotten the password.”
During a narration we see a quick glimpse of body-painted water nymphs rising out of a lake. A weasel steals a key that’s hanging in the pronounced cleavage of a sleeping witch. Meggie’s mother, Resa, wears a low-cut top. An ancient Persian text displays a painted picture of a woman with her arm folded across her bare chest.
Inkheart is not Braveheart—or even Dragonheart when it comes to violence. But while we don’t see any real bloodletting, Capricorn and his thugs are definitely the violent, ransacking, gun-toting types. One thug, Basta, wields a knife and likes to growl while holding it to people’s throats. He threatens to cut out Mo’s tongue. We’re told that he caused the prominent scars above Dustfinger’s eye. Basta does cut Mo in a flashback scene, giving him three quick slashes on the arm.
Dustfinger is battered and tossed around by Capricorn’s crew. We see him later with a bloodied nose. Mo is knocked unconscious. A magical storm batters people. Dustfinger and Farid set a castle on fire. A tapestry depicts a man impaled upon a sword. Men are swept away in a malevolent twister.
The scariest and most violent looking monster in the movie is the Shadow. This swirling “immortal, invulnerable” skull-faced hulk is said to be made from the ashes of the dead—and it looks like it. We don’t see it “strip the flesh” from the backs of its victims like we’re told it will, but it does menace Meggie with its huge sharp-clawed hands and almost snatches up Mo.
[Spoiler Warning] The big finale has all the bad guys turning into white, print-covered ash and blowing away in the wind.
One use each of “d–n” and “jacka–.” Several times, characters misuse God’s name.
One of Capricorn’s peons is a silvertongue with a stutter. This man can only partially read someone out of a book. He’s mocked for his efforts. And as a result of his lack of clarity, the “half read” characters have deformities and/or words tattooed on their skin.
Capricorn expresses his joy at being in the real world where good doesn’t always win. Farid tells someone, “You’re as sour as goat urine.”
Inkheart is based on a best-selling German children’s novel (written by Cornelia Funke) that’s become so popular it’s been translated into 37 languages. The imaginative tale features magically gifted readers who can pull characters out of books and into real life simply by reading about them out loud. It’s a creatively stirring idea.
Pulling characters out of children’s books and tossing them into a movie, however, can sometimes be far less exciting. While telling us that books can be powerful things opening doorways to adventure and learning, Inkheart somehow forgets that movies can do the same. It’s really very curious that a fantastical premise lauding the imaginative joy of storytelling ends up rather shy on imagination or storytelling, resulting in a cartoonish facsimile of Funke’s much more complex creation. It gives viewers some not-all-that-interesting runabout action topped with a few dollops of CGI.
And that CGI can be a tad problematic. Magnifying baddies and fire-eyed scaries from a six-inch drawing on page 59 into 20-foot tall roaring monstrosities on a big screen can make things a whole lot more frightening for certain members of this tale’s core audience. (And sitting in those stiff theater seats means there’s nary a pillow in sight to bury your head under.)
It is fun to watch characters from Ali Baba, Rapunzel and Oz jump from their world into ours. And it’s gratifying to be reminded that we have a say in who we are and who we become. That we are not merely victims of fate and fortune. That no matter how badly we think we are “written” we can always become the honorable, brave and trusted people we want to be.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.