Inkheart takes fantasy to a new, lurid and sometimes brooding level
The makers of Inkheart would like to put J.K. Rowling's wizards-in-training on notice: They will see their Dumbledore and raise them one Dustfinger. Potter, you've been served.
Inkheart, Iain Softley's vivid, super-serious, sometimes lurid adaptation of the young people's novel by Cornelia Funke, manages a neat trick of indirection.
Filmgoers may attend this fantasy adventure, which stars Brendan Fraser and Eliza Hope Bennett, thinking that they will be captivated by the characters they play - a bookbinder and his 12-year-old daughter.
Instead, Inkheart is completely dominated by its ensemble of supporting players, including the marvellous Paul Bettany as the quasi-villainous fire juggler Dustfinger, and Helen Mirren delivering a droll portrayal of a dotty bibliophile with fabulous design sense.
Indeed, the aesthetics of Inkheart are part of what make it such a surprisingly enjoyable experience to watch. Travelling from a picturesque town in Switzerland to a magnificent villa in northern Italy, this is a movie that often moves with dizzying speed, but always with a rich sense of visual detail.
And that's not a luxury but a necessity in bringing Inkheart's outlandishly convoluted story to convincing life.
Fraser plays Mortimer "Mo" Folchart, who,as the movie opens is reading Little Red Riding Hood to his baby daughter when he suddenly conjures an actual red cape. Mo, it turns out, is a "silvertongue", who can make stories come to literal life just by reading them aloud.
Twelve years later, Mo and his daughter, Meggie (Bennett), are travelling to a remote Swiss town in search of vintage books for Mo to repair, but also to aid him in his search for an obscure novel called Inkheart.
It seems he was reading the story to Meggie back when she was a toddler and things went desperately awry, a disastrous turn of events that comes fully to light in fits and starts throughout the movie.
One clue to what happened lies with Dustfinger, a literally and figuratively smouldering fire juggler who appears suddenly in Switzerland and becomes, if not an ally, then a broodingly colourful companion on Mo and Meggie's search for the elusive book.
That search takes them to the home of Meggie's vinegary great-aunt Elinor (Mirren), who lives alone in a vast lakeside villa in Italy with a library to die for. In fact, the three actually almost do die for it when a troop of henchmen arrive to pillage the place, burn Elinor's beloved tomes and take the family back to their boss, Capricorn (Andy Serkis).
Once they reach the malevolent Capricorn's fortress like kingdom, Mo, Meggie and Elinor are imprisoned alongside a ticking crocodile, a unicorn and a flotilla of flying monkeys.
They're all characters who have been "read out" of books by Capricorn's own silvertongue, whose stuttering recitations result in people arriving with the writing of their native books inscribed on their skin.
These eerie tattoos are just a few of the arresting visual touches that make Inkheart such an appealing sensory experience, full of imaginative creatures, vibrant colours and rich textures from the pair of Chuck Taylors given to a young character plucked from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights to the film's harrowing climax, which plays like a boho-goth wedding staged by Albert Speer.
The plot of Inkheart is so bursting and busy that it's occasionally impossible to follow, although fans of the book will no doubt complain that too much has been left out.
Bettany provides the film's true north. His performance, as a tortured character desperate to be read back into his book so he can return to his wife (played in a cameo by Bettany's real-life spouse, Jennifer Connelly), is nothing short of a revelation.
In a movie that could easily be tossed quickly aside as a pleasant but disposable piece of tween entertainment, Bettany commits an act of serious acting, imbuing Dustfinger with generous doses of angst, sensitivity and dour humour (purely incidentally - and this is for all the mums out there - he looks pretty good with his shirt off, too).
With several scenes of intense peril and a subtle emotional undercurrent of danger and desire, Inkheart might qualify as Twilight for a slightly younger generation (or maybe Bedtime Stories for a slightly older one).
But for the young teens in its demographic wheelhouse, Inkheart packs a welcome amount of entertainment value, creating a genuinely original world of enchantment when that territory has otherwise been colonised by the imperial forces of Hogwarts and Middle Earth.
Inkheart has a flag to plant, too and it has a style and snap all its own.