Watching Iain Softley's motley, jewel-toned adaptation of Inkheart, the best-selling 2003 young-adult novel by Cornelia Funke, I had the distinct sensation of being a young bookworm again, falling into a world as vividly real as it is impossible. In Funke's universe given voice in a screenplay by fantasy-friendly playwright David Lindsay-Abaire—a literature lover named Mo (Brendan Fraser) possesses a dangerous talent for bringing characters from books to life when he reads aloud. The downside? When a fictional figure comes alive, a real person must disappear into the book's pages.
That explains the extended absence of Mo's wife, Resa (Sienna Guillory). Mo has not yet told the truth about Resa's disappearance to their intrepid young daughter, Meggie (Eliza Hope Bennett), just as many a movie adult before him annoyingly withheld information from their children for dramatic effect. (Maybe Fraser's Mo, a pleasantly square-framed American among a population of Brits, just can't bring himself to utter the word ''Mummy.'') It also explains the presence of a rambunctious crowd of fictional interlopers. These include a soulful fire juggler (Paul Bettany) who yearns for home (and why not, when real-life wife Jennifer Connelly appears briefly as the juggler's fairy-tale missus), and an acquisitive villain named Capricorn (Andy Serkis, always welcome even without his Gollum suit). A unicorn and The Wizard of Oz's flying monkeys also make appearances as does, briefly, Toto too.
The story is a whirl, a jumble, an effusion sometimes flowing smoothly, other times jerking along as if the filmmaker (Backbeat, The Wings of the Dove) has been given advice he resents regarding pacing and the balance of sweetness and danger. There are close calls, weird whispers, amusing throwaway lines, the ditherings of a distractible author (Jim Broadbent), and cartoon violence undertaken by misshapen scary-comic evil henchmen. But most deliciously madcap of all, there are the grand gestures and imperious pronouncements of Helen Mirren as Meggie's flesh-and-blood great-aunt Elinor, a creature of pencil-thin eyebrows and luscious costumery who caws and squawks with very unqueenly abandon. Mirren's all-out display in this distinctly British absurdo-literary extravaganza had me wishing Elinor were my own fabulous auntie and that she'd lend me some magic items from her closet. B