Librarians everywhere should rejoice at "The Pagemaster," a new children's film that celebrates the power of reading and the library as the font of civilization. But for the rest of us, possibly these good intentions aren't quite enough; too bad the film wasn't a bit more entertaining.
The movie, perhaps too cleverly, is divided into live and animated sequences. As it opens, a real-life Macaulay Culkin plays Richard, a suburban kid so timid that even the prospect of climbing into the treehouse his dad is building for him is terrifying. This boy obviously need therapy or drugs, not discipline. But in a fit of pique, his bullying dad sends him to the hardware store to buy nails. On the way, he encounters one of those once-in-a-lifetime, end-of-the-world storms and takes refuge in a strange and magical place: a library.
There, he meets kindly old librarian Christopher Lloyd, who all but blows the tepid little boy away with an overwrought rhetorical style that makes the rafters vibrate. Next to this guy, the mighty Oz was repressed. Anyway, the librarian tries to bully him into opening his imagination to the world of books but, being a '90s kind of guy, he refuses.
Soon, however, he has no choice: The colors of a ceiling mural melt, engulfing him and changing the world to animation. Metaphorically, we have entered the world of imagination. Imagine the surprise then, to discover that the world of imagination isn't very well imagined.
Richard picks up three li'l pals. Bad idea. Stupid move. Movie hits floor, never gets up. For some reason, these three are cute little book creatures -- that is, actual books with legs and faces and spindly arms that subdivide all literature into three useless categories. One is Adventure, one is Fantasy and one is Horror, but they play pretty much like Huey, Dewie and Louie.
As creatures of empathy and amusement, these creations are losers. They look grotesque and awkward, and one is never sure what to make of them. Don't the producers get it? It's not the books as objects that have meaning, it's the books as provokers of the imagination, as illuminators of mystery, as educators. Oh, well.
The movie then pulls animated Richard and company through a series of scenes from classic literature, including such stops as "Moby Dick," "Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde" and "Long John Silver." But the episodes aren't fully dramatized and don't have much impact.
There's even a dragon, but it seems to have sprung, confusingly enough, not out of "Beowulf" but out of the film "Dragonslayer" of 1981.
It helps even less that the escape tunnel the hearty little crew is bumbling toward is a sign marked . . . EXIT. Isn't that romantic? In the end, "The Pagemaster" feels like a film that celebrates books made by people who haven't read any.
And it ends up in an obvious little piffle of psychobabble: Richard, of course, is magically cured by his exposure to adventure in the library, and is last seen as a boy commando taking flying leaps on his bike. But that's not the point of literature either: It's not a magic cure, directly applicable to immediate problems, and to shill it as such is to misrepresent it totally.
Stars: Macaulay Culkin and Christopher Lloyd
Directors: Maurice Hunt (animation) and Joe Johnston (live action)
Released by: Twentieth Century Fox