For the better part of a decade, fantasy filmmakers have all been trying to create the next Fellowship Of The Ring. So Inkheart is a welcome throwback—it's clearly trying to be the next The Princess Bride. While it mostly lacks the snappy banter that helped make Bride an all-ages classic, it has the same overcrowded cast of ringers, the same balance of comic lightness and surprising darkness, and the same healthy respect for literature and storytelling, which translates into a blanket excuse for the story's broad strokes. It doesn't avoid fairy-tale clichés, but at least it acknowledges them as tropes.
The premise, drawn from a dense YA trilogy by "the German J.K. Rowling," Cornelia Funke, has Brendan Fraser wandering the world in search of a rare novel called Inkheart. When his daughter Eliza Bennett was very young, he read to her from Inkheart, and several characters emerged from its pages, including evil underling Andy Serkis and cowardly, self-serving fire-artist Paul Bettany. Meanwhile, Fraser's wife was sucked into the book. Fraser needs Inkheart to reverse events, but Serkis, who now commands a castle and his own criminal retinue, has been collecting and destroying copies of the book as a safeguard. Bettany, meanwhile, just wants to go home. Bennett, now an adolescent, learns about her father's uncontrolled powers over books for the first time when Serkis and Bettany both come after him, launching a crazy-quilt quest full of colorful characters like flaky, addled author Jim Broadbent and Fraser's cranky, rich bibliophile aunt Helen Mirren.
Much of Inkheart proceeds with the sprawling CGI-fest polish of an early Harry Potter movie or a Walden Media book adaptation; the direction is as serviceable-but-bland as might be expected from Iain Softley, who last helmed The Skeleton Key and K-PAX. But the story itself is so charmingly dense, fractious, and complicated that it frequently leaves the obvious good-guy-fights-bad-guy groove, and noses toward Terry Gilliam-esque randomness and ebullience. It also trades in literary in-jokes and references worthy of Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next novels, from winged monkeys to Mirren's exasperated exclamation, "For the love of Thomas Hardy!" Inkheart won't make people forget Princess Bride, but it may give them pleasant flashbacks while it rollicks through its own bookish adventures.