Once upon a time, there was a literary fantasy adventure film with an imaginative premise and a fine cast, unfortunately, the dreaded curse of a meandering plot besieged the entire second act, making the intriguing setup and exciting finale all for naught. There were flying monkeys, a Minotaur, and even Helen Mirren on a unicorn, but even that marvelous sight wasn't enough to save the plot from becoming tiresome as our harried group of heroes attempted to defeat an otherworldly evil by accomplishing the thrilling act of...locating a lost book.
The story gets under way as Mortimer Folchart (Brendan Fraser) and his 12-year-old daughter, Meggie (Eliza Hope Bennett), arrive in a small European village. Mo is a "Silvertongue" -- a rare individual with the power to conjure the fictional characters in books into our reality simply by reading the stories aloud. But, for every character that crosses over into reality when Mo reads, a real person disappears into the pages of the book in his hands. Mo's daughter was just three years old when he first read her a lavish fantasy adventure entitled "Inkheart." At the time, Mo didn't understand his unique power, and after summoning the story's menacing villain, Capricorn (Andy Serkis), along with some of his most feared henchmen and a wily fire-dancer named Dustfinger (Paul Bettany), Mo's wife, Resa (Sienna Guillory), disappeared into the pages of "Inkheart." For the past nine years, Mo has been scouring used bookstores on every continent in search of the elusive book. If he can just track down a single copy, perhaps he can read his wife back into reality.
But Mo isn't the only one scouring the globe for "Inkheart"; holed up deep in the English countryside, in a sprawling castle far from the prying eyes of modern civilization is Capricorn. Having grown quite accustomed to living in our world, Capricorn is determined to track down and destroy every copy of "Inkheart" so he will never be banished back into the pages of fiction. Meanwhile, Dustfinger longs to return to his family in the novel. When Mo locates a copy of "Inkheart" on the dusty shelves of a cramped used bookstore, the race is on to save his wife before Capricorn discovers the plan and destroys what appears to be the last surviving copy of the book. Perhaps with a little help from curmudgeonly book collector Elinor Loredan (Helen Mirren), eccentric "Inkheart" author Fenoglio (Jim Broadbent), and good-natured Arabian Nights thief Farid (Rafi Gavron), Mo and Meggie can prevent Capricorn from summoning the dreaded Shadow and using the towering abomination to claim our reality as his own.
Inkheart is a film that's brimming with fascinating ideas and elevated by some memorable performances -- Broadbent and Serkis in particular are compulsively watchable as the sardonic author of "Inkheart" and smiling scoundrel respectively -- yet after our heroic protagonists make a daring escape from Capricorn's castle early on, the action comes to a grinding halt for a good half-hour as they regroup and hatch a plan to set things right. It's a genuine thrill to see Dorothy's house from The Wizard of Oz spinning through the sky after Mo ingeniously summons the tornado from the book in order to escape Capricorn's castle, and it's fun to see familiar fiction blend with original ideas as the story winds to an appropriately grandiose climax, yet even all of this can't make up for the fact that the action simply dissipates for a substantial portion of the second act. Even Broadbent can't stave off boredom as he sits locked away in Capricorn's dungeon, cracking wise as he and Meggie scheme to thwart the villain's nefarious plan, and by the time the Shadow casts the castle into darkness and all hope seems lost, the story has long run out of steam. But all hope may not be lost yet, because when the film loses momentum and the little ones grow restless, perhaps parents can persuade them to pick up a book and exercise their own imaginations.