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A cowardly boy who buries himself in accident statistics enters a library to escape a storm only to be transformed into an animated illustration by the Pagemaster. He has to work through obstacles from classic books to return to real life.
For more about The Pagemaster and the The Pagemaster Blu-ray release, see the The Pagemaster Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on September 23, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Macaulay Culkin, Christopher Lloyd (I), Ed Begley, Jr., Mel Harris, Patrick Stewart, Whoopi Goldberg
Director: Joe Johnston
» See full cast & crew
The Pagemaster Blu-ray Review
Where no boy has gone before.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, September 23, 2013
It seems obvious that while the printed word will live on, its method of delivery to readers is inevitably changing. Just this morning as I prepared to write this review, my local paper had a long article, an apology almost, by the paper's Public Editor giving detailed information on upcoming changes to the paper's publication and home delivery schedule (in other words, things are going digital—quickly), changes which were actually announced several months ago but which have been met with withering criticism by many subscribers who want a physical paper in their hot little hands in the morning. Perhaps strangely, there seems to have been at least somewhat less controversy in the transition from printed books to those available on tablets like the Kindle or the Nook. I frankly am not sure of why this would be the case. I own a Kindle and have several books on it, but I personally much prefer the feel of having a real book in my hands. Somehow the portal to imagination that reading offers seems more visceral, palpable even, with an actual book in front of me than a "mere" electronic delivery device. Will this brave new world actually change the psychology of reading? I hope not, but it's something I wonder about from time to time. The aforementioned "portal" of imagination which is opened by reading is central to the story of The Pagemaster, a fitfully interesting but ultimately slightly lackluster hybrid live action animated outing that was ironically rather infamous in its day for a protracted WGA dispute over its writing credits. The film features Macaulay Culkin (in both "real" and animated form) as a timid young boy named Richard Tyler, a kid who would have loved to have been a "bubble boy", sequestered away from all the perceived threats of the world which haunt his every waking moment. Richard is a walking compendium of statistics, all of them recited like so many actuarial tables, boiling down more or less to mortality rates that any given activity may present. This drives his well meaning father (Ed Begley, Jr.) slightly to distraction, while his more coddling mother (Mel Harris) is at least a bit more tolerant of the behavior. When Richard's Dad has an unfortunate accident one day (one caused by Richard), he insists that Richard pedal his bike (a vehicle equipped with an insane amount of safety features) to the local hardware store to pick up some nails. And that's when Richard's unlikely adventure begins.
A sudden storm descends and Richie finds himself on the receiving end of huge amounts of hail and a couple of close calls with lightning. He traverses a mysterious looking tunnel and then comes to a massive building with some scary looking stone lions outside. That of course turns out to be a library, and Richie manages to find a brief respite from the downpour outside in the dank confines of the cavernous building. (In a tangential aside, a recent trip to London provided me with some fascinating trivia about the lions that adorn so many public libraries in the United States, including the famous New York Public Library in Manhattan. Evidently most if not all of those lions were modeled on the ones found in Trafalgar Square, and according to the tourguide who gave me this invaluable piece of information, the sculptor of those lions made them from some anatomically incorrect sketches which included canine rear legs which are folded on their haunches and which aim toward the head of the beast. In reality, feline legs supposedly can't be positioned that way and so our tourguide called these beasts "dog lions".)
Once inside the library, Richie soon meets a kindly if slightly mysterious librarian (Christopher Lloyd) who directs Richie to a pay phone so that he can call his parents and tell them what's happened to him. On the way Richie stops in a rather impressively humongous cupola which contains an equally impressive mural painted on the inside of the dome which suddenly comes frighteningly to life. In one of the film's most memorable effects (and an early example of then nascent CGI technology), huge showers of paint rain down on Richie, ultimately becoming a dragon which consumes him. Suddenly Richie himself is in animated form, and the bulk of the rest of the film takes place in a cartoon environment.
Richie soon meets a trio of anthropomorphized books, including Adventure (Patrick Stewart), Fantasy (Whoopi Goldberg) and Horror (Frank Welker). The trio of bizarre little tomes lead Richie on a whirlwind tour of such iconic rare as Moby Dick and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It probably goes without saying that the adventures ultimately lead Richie into a new appreciation for his native talents and, yes, courage. The film has a number of neat little literary allusions, some of them quite subtle, though my hunch is they will probably zoom right over the heads of the kids who will be otherwise enchanted by the animation.
Perhaps due to the development issues this film went through which are hinted at by the rather nasty WGA battle which ensued before the film could be released, The Pagemaster has a hit or miss quality, with an ironic Reader's Digest Condensed Book feel a lot of the time. The film lurches rather noisily from legendary character to legendary character, along with some other fanciful, wholly original, creations. The voice work is similarly chaotic at times, as if the sound mixers thought that burying dialogue in a Howard Hawksian onslaught of people talking over each other might hide some of the cinematic seams. Stewart probably comes out best of the bunch, with a nice little pirate dialect that makes Adventure a lot of fun to listen to. (The film is a kind of weird reunion for a glut of people with Star Trek connections, including Stewart, Goldberg and Lloyd. Also on hand is Leonard Nimoy as Dr. Jekyll and several other voice actors with tangential connections to the franchise.)
The animation here is quite winning, done by a consortium of alumni from both the Bluth and Disney houses. There's a nice depth and richness to the character animation, even if the three focal "books" just look flat out odd (it frankly may have worked better to have had one iconic character in each of these genres be the representatives rather than supposed reading volumes). And the message here, while none too subtle, is both laudable and perhaps especially relevant for us now. Reading is a noble activity, one which can reveal essential truths both about the outside world as well as ourselves, and that is hopefully something that no mere change in technology can alter.
The Pagemaster Blu-ray, Video Quality
The Pagemaster is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 1.85:1. This is a solid if just slightly underwhelming looking transfer that benefits from elements with only very minor damage. Balancing that is just slightly tepid looking color, though perhaps ironically the few CGI elements seem to have weathered the storm of time better than some of the traditionally drawn cel animation. There's a completely natural layer of grain in evidence here and if the transfer looks slightly soft a lot of the time, it's not necessarily a distraction, especially in the longer animated section, where things look kind of "old school" anyway. Line detail remains reasonably sharp in this long section and colors, while not quite as vivid as some may hope, are nicely saturated and certainly very varied. There are some density fluctuations in the animated sequences which may be "baked in" to the source. As with the animated sequence, the live action bookending moments look just slightly soft, but feature good detail in close-ups and accurate, nicely saturated, color.
The Pagemaster Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The Pagemaster's lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is nicely immersive in fits and starts, though it's perhaps just slightly less rambunctious than some might expect from a fantasy film like this one. Things get off to a good start in the storm sequence, when the roar of thunder gives the low end a real workout and the pelt of rain and hail fills the surrounds. Once the animated section takes over, there are some great sound effects, including some spooky moments in the graveyard leading up to Jekyll's house, the nice sea sequence which find Richie chasing Moby Dick, and the fun treasure hunting sequence with Long John Silver. The two featured songs nicely fill the surround channels as well. The mix here is a bit on the noisy side at times, as mentioned above in the body of the review, and unfortunately the tendency is to place all the dialogue in the front channels, where it only sounds more crowded, especially when characters are talking over each other. That said, fidelity is excellent and dynamic range is very wide.
The Pagemaster Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The Pagemaster Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
The Pagemaster doesn't quite gel into the classic children's fantasy it obviously wanted to be, but there's still a lot here to enjoy, especially if there are younger children in the home. Some of the references here are obviously geared toward adults (check out Richie hoisting a giant copy of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged for one such moment), but kids will no doubt love the animation and the goofy trio of books who accompany Richie on his adventures. This Blu-ray offers generally solid video and nice sounding audio and it comes Recommended.
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