The overall results are mixed, but there's no denying that the superpower on display in Inkheart is a novel one.
Mo Folchart (Brendan Fraser) is a "silver tongue," able to bring book characters to literal life by reading their stories aloud.
It's a nifty parlor trick. Could be fun to conjure up, say, Henry James' Daisy Miller. Might want to stay away from Dracula.
For Mo, though, it's a curse. Years ago he read aloud an obscure sword-and-sorcery fantasy called Inkheart, with the result that characters from the book entered our world. Simultaneously his beloved wife, Resa (Sienna Guillory), vanished ... presumably she has become a character (and prisoner) of the novel.
Now Mo, with his 10-year-old daughter, Meggie (Eliza Hope Bennett), wanders Europe in search of another copy of Inkheart that might allow him to undo the damage. Pursuing them is a crew of black-jacketed thugs from the novel, led by the sinister Capricorn (Andy Serkis), who wants to use Mo's power to bring forth weapons and wealth.
These bad guys have adapted well to our world, taking over a medieval-looking village in a mountainous part of Italy and setting forth from a crumbling castle to do mischief.
An entirely different case is Dustfinger (Paul Bettany), a street magician from Inkheart who can create flames just by snapping his fingers. He and his furry companion, a marten, want Mo to return them to the pages of the book, where Dustfinger left behind a wife (a cameo by Jennifer Connelly, Bettany's real-life spouse) and family.
Along the way Mo and Meggie team up with Aunt Elinor (Helen Mirren), an eccentric bookworm; Fenoglio (Jim Broadbent), the graying author of Inkheart, and Farid (Rafi Gavron), one of the 40 thieves brought to our world from a reading of 1001 Arabian Nights.
At its most intriguing Inkheart is a bit like the National Treasure films but delivering tidbits of literary history instead of nuggets of American history.
But despite strong production values and a cast of heavy hitters, Inkheart never hooks us as it should.
Two significant shortcomings: First, the film is unfocused. Is it Mo's story? Meggie's? Dustfinger's? The screenplay by David Lindsay-Abaire (adapting the first of Cornelia Funke's popular children's trilogy ) lacks a point of view and jumps restlessly from one point to another.
And then there are the characters themselves - most have been reduced to a single personality trait, more walking cliches than fully formed people. Not even seasoned pros like Mirren and Broadbent can fully inhabit these cartoonish creations.
At least director Iain Softley (Backbeat, The Wings of the Dove) doesn't talk down to his audience. Inkheart scrupulously avoids big dumb moments. And in an enterprise like this that's half the battle.