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Friday Family Movie Night: Inkheart

It was almost a year ago that we started having regular Friday family movie nights, and for months I've been meaning to start providing some of my feedback on the movies we watch. It's hard to find reviews for movies from a whole-family perspective (i.e. is this movie going to simultaneously enchant my children, keep my interest, and not freak out my three-year-old?) -- so providing that will, I hope, be a service for other parents and at the same time inspire you to give some great recommendations for future movie nights. Most of the movies I watch are available On Demand either free or for the lesser rental fees (I try to avoid the $4.99 new releases), and often on Netflix streaming as well.

One of my recent favorites was Inkheart, one of the large number of movies produced in recent years based on relatively new YA books. Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke, is now on my shelf (a violation of my usual rule: read the book first so the movie doesn't give you spoilers) and I'm eager to read what I understand is a substantially different story than the movie.

Inkheart, the story of a man whose mysterious ability to pull characters out of the stories he reads aloud into the "real world" threatens to destroy his family, starts magically in a deeply terrifying way for a mother. You know what's about to happen as the father in the story -- Brendan Fraser (I know, but he's good) as Mo "Silvertongue" Folchart -- begins to read Red Riding Hood to his daughter, Meggie, as a baby. His wife (Sienna Guillory) looks lovingly on. And then, through the dark clouds, floats a red cape...

By the next scene, Meggy is a tween and her father is in search of a mysterious book. She believes her mother left them when she was a baby; her father has never told her the truth, although she knows he is looking for something important as he travels the world in search of old books. We slowly learn how the "silvertongue" gift works -- when a character is pulled out of a book a character from the real world must go in his place -- and the only way to get back is to read them back (somehow, I was unclear how that would work although it's set up as a solution early in the movie).

The fictional Inkheart, the book Mo was reading when his wife disappeared, is out of print and written by an eccentric old Italian man. It's a dark medieval fantasy, with an evil lord who summons a monster called the Shadow to help control his subjects. Two villains from the book, and Dustfinger (Paul Bettany, the best character in my opinion), a fire-eater from the evil lord's court, are sent by the evil Capricorn to retrieve the silvertongue. They have their own silvertongue, but he has a lisp and brings people into the real world with flaws (enchantingly, with black words tatooed across their bodies) -- Capricorn wants Mo to read the Shadow into existence and give him dominion over the modern world into which he's been brought.

There are a few questionable plot devices and the usual shortcuts taken by movies-that-become books; such as, why does it take so long for anyone to find Inkheart? A truly capable book dealer in mourning for his wife would probably have come up with a better plan than haunting old book shops. And the idea that Mo has let everyone in his life believe that his wife simply left one day (including his wife's aunt, the very rich, eccentric book collector, played by Helen Mirren) is close to abhorable. The way the story develops is enough to give everyone watching something rewarding; the writer-homeschooling mama I am loved how Meggie's character develops her own power over her world; and my boys loved the interplay between bad and good guy. There are some fantastic scenes of magic, swordplay, humor and chase that will keep most kids dazzled. The deeper themes of family, inherent character and creating your own destiny are laudable and older children will probably get it. I had a lot to discuss with Everett, always a plus. And the cameos of other children's books and fairy tale characters are fantastic (and sometimes frightening).

There were some extremely scary scenes, though; the Shadow is a truly frightening monster, a black cloud of powerful evil that had Monroe (three and a half) telling me it was too scary for him. Evil is vanquished, and the bad guys turn to dust instead of dying, or disappear back into the book; the movie ends satisfyingly with no enduring sadness.

I wouldn't suggest this for young children who tend to let movie monsters inhabit their nightmares, nor kids who are terrified of fire (there's a scene in which a bunch of beautiful books are burnt; it terrified me not a little). The adult themes are all handled with a child in mind, so that it shouldn't be too old for an elementary-aged viewer; and it provides plenty of character development and thought-provoking plot for the parent. There's love, too, but not played with too much kissing and mooniness; I think it's great for boys and girls alike.

I'd recommend this movie as one of the better ones I've watched recently, for five or six years old (depending on your own child's tolerance for scary stuff) and older.


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The book is so much better as is usual since there is so much they have to cut to make it 1 1/2 hours viewing time. We listened to Inkheart on CD first then got the movie from the library. The kids were prepared for some of the darker parts which helped. We're listening to the sequel now, Inkspell which is really good as well. Thanks for starting this section. We are also on the lookout for good Friday night movies.

We loved these books so much that the movie was a definite disappointment. As far as books we liked that that made good movies we liked, Because of Winn Dixie, Indian in the Cupboard and for older kids Holes.

An amazing go-to website for very, very detailed movie reviews regarding making choices for your own family about movies is http://www.kids-in-mind.com/

Highly recommended!!

How they do it:

"Unlike the MPAA, we do not assign a single, age-specific rating and we do not make recommendations. Instead we assign each film three distinct, category-specific ratings: one for SEX & NUDITY, one for VIOLENCE & GORE and one for PROFANITY. Each rating is on a scale of zero to ten, depending on quantity (more F-words, for instance, will mean a higher Profanity rating, and so on) as well as context (especially when it comes to the categories of sex, nudity, violence and gore, since they are not as easily quantifiable as profanity).

In addition to assigning three ratings, we also explain in detail why a film rates high or low in a specific category, and we include instances of SUBSTANCE USE, a list of DISCUSSION TOPICS (topics that may elicit questions from kids) and MESSAGES (what values the film conveys).
Since our system is based on objective standards, not the viewer's age or the artistic merits of a film, we enable concerned adults to determine whether a movie is appropriate for them or their children according to their own criteria.

As we never tire pointing out, we make no judgments about what is good or bad or anything else. We do not "condemn," "critique" or "criticize" movies. And we don't "praise" or "recommend" movies either. We advance no "beliefs" and we do not "preach" anything. We are not affiliated with any political party, any cultural or religious group, or any ideology. The only thing we advocate is responsible, engaged parenting. If one reads our reviews one will often find many instances where our descriptions are so detailed they seem absurd. But we'd rather err on the side of comprehensiveness. It's up to parents to decide which details are useful to them and their family, and which ones they consider fatuous."

another great resource for movies, books, music, games, tv, websites, etc. is commonsensemedia.org. it does point out various things by age and provides details on violence, sex, language, drinking/drugs and consumerism.

I'm amazed (and a little jealous) that this movie was digestible for a three-year-old. My super sensitive nearly-5-year-old daughter can't even handle Winne the Pooh with the swarm of bees! We're really wanting to start a weekly movie night, and I am completely at a loss. We're quite sick of the two movies she enjoys (Lost in the Woods -- real-life animals with silly voiceovers; Fairy Houses -- documentary-style, live actors who build fairy houses in the woods in Maine). I coached her through Milo & Otis, but it took some firm reassurance. She adores Kipper, but I can only take so much -- and the 10 minute episodes aren't really *movies*. This is a child who breaks into tears if a sad song comes on in the grocery store. I don't want to force her to take in anything she can't handle, and we generally limit screen time a lot, but I also know there's a lot of cinematic magic to be had! I'll definitely be checking out kids-in-mind.com but would love any recommendations from others.

This seems like a highly "sophisticated" movie for a 3 year old to have to digest and process--glad it worked out for you and your family--not sure it would be our choice for a 3 year old!

Hehe...my daughter is almost out of high school but she tells everyone that she learned " the facts of life" from the movie Milo and Otis. When she was 6 we took her out to dinner to tell her I was pregnant and she said loudly, ewwww will the baby squeeze out like the kittens in Milo and Otis??Ack.

thanks for the recommendations of other sites -- they're great resources! -- I think what I didn't voice in the original post is my desire for reviews of the content from a literature and/or film major's perspective. I'm interested in, not just the violent/sexual content (though that stuff is helpful) but also that story arc and character development that some adult reviews include. it's hard to wade through that stuff so far after the fact.

Amy: I feel for you. my three-year-old (who will be four in a few months) benefits greatly from two-older-brother syndrome: always exposed to things that are rather beyond his maturity level, and with two loving big brothers to tell him everything will be ok (and often, to encourage him to watch it because they want him to enjoy it, too). some kids, though, just have a very heightened sense of fear about things. Everett couldn't even handle the scary tunnel scene in one of the Dora episodes as a two-year-old. we had to skip through it (he's the oldest).

it seems that the usual dramatic arc movie makers can't seem to do without necessarily involves some tension (and that can be really scare for little ones). I know it's not really a solution, but have you tried Pingu? that's another sweet calm show for little kids.

I'm wracking my brain and I can't think of a thing that's both lovely and without scary bits. I've heard great things about Winged Migration, but I haven't seen it. you might try that one for starters! and take care of your little one... I know there are some great books for very sensitive kids that might help coach you through what could be a hard transition into kindergarten (will she go next year?)

h: I don't really think this movie could be classified as too sophisticated for three-year-olds. in my experience, kids take from the deeper swirlier meanings only what they *can* process. take, for example, any Disney movie -- just because it's animated doesn't mean that it doesn't have very deep and (to an adult) weighty concerns. the little kids don't pick up on that.

We like the movie Ponyo and love Spirited Away. Both are made by the same director, Hayao Miyazaki. Spirited Away is from 2001 so I am sure most of you have at least heard of it if not seen it, but there is a Wikipedia entry with a detailed description of the plot. Spirited Away is scarier than Ponyo, but also better in my opinion. Both are animated and are very beautiful to watch. The same man also made the movie My Neighbor Totoro which I haven't seen but I have heard is good. Another movie I might try is the Secret of Roan Inish. Not sure if it might be too slow for littler ones. I tried to watch the Secret of Kells with my 4 year old and she was bored but it might be good for kids just a few years older. Sorry I am not including plot summaries of any of these movies, but they are all easy to find online. Happy Friday night movies!

Thanks so much for the recs and feedback. Sarah, I totally agree that the more literary analysis would be a great addition to reviews of family movies. Just one more follow-up comment -- I'm frustrated by how many films deal with the death of a parent (most often, the mother). We deal with a lot of separation anxiety, and that's a theme I'd just really like to avoid. The Disney movies are the worst about this. Is there a single movie with a living/present mother? As far as what little kids can process, I do agree with Sarah in part -- a lot of meaning goes over most kids' heads (think about vintage Sesame Street humor!). However, as my mom says and my little girl manifests: what goes in, must come out. The search continues! (Meanwhile, I'll be watching the Secret of Roan Inish and Ponyo again, just for me!)

Also in the Miyazaki line is Kiki's Delivery Service. That was our favorite for quite a while.

For the sensitive types - Clifford the Movie might be a good choice (plus it is short), or the Curious George Movie (nice music too). There are bits in both where characters get lost or in a bit of trouble but all is well during and at the end of the movie.

Dustfinger's firedancing routine is a treat for all the mamas...

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