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British author Samuel Butler once likened books to "imprisoned souls" — until "someone takes them down from a shelf and frees them."

But freedom can be a dangerous business. Especially when literary characters discover life outside the pages of a book.

That’s exactly what happens in "Inkheart," the latest "Harry Potter" wannabe to hit the screen before the boy wizard returns this summer.

Based on this first fanciful installment of German author Cornelia Funke’s "Inkworld" trilogy, "Inkheart" lacks the palpable sense of wonder that marks the "Potter" tales.

Until the real thing comes along, however, "Inkheart" will do nicely — especially for those seeking a family-friendly fantasy that proclaims the power of reading.

Make that reading aloud.

That’s because, in "Inkheart’s" world, some people have the power to bring literary characters to life when they read aloud.

Such people are called Silvertongues — and Mo Folchart (Brendan Fraser) is one of them.

Being a Silvertongue has its drawbacks, as Mo discovers when he reads from a fantasy tale titled "Inkheart" and inadvertently brings to life a trio of medieval characters: the scheming Capricorn (Andy Serkis, the actor behind "Lord of the Rings’ " Gollum), his henchman Basta (Jamie Foreman) and the fire-breathing rascal Dustfinger (Paul Bettany).

As they arrived in the real world, however, somebody had to replace them in Inkworld — and that someone turned out to be Mo’s wife, Resa (Sienna Guillory).

Ever since that cataclysmic mistake, Mo has refused to read aloud to his daughter Meggie ("Nanny McPhee’s" Eliza Bennett), whom he drags to bookstores and street fairs all over Europe, in hopes of finding another copy of "Inkheart" so he can read Resa home.

Dustfinger wants to return to his life inside "Inkworld" as much as Mo wants Resa back.

But Capricorn likes life in this world — and has no intention of giving up his castle, his squad of black-jacketed goons, or his power to bend reality. (With a little help, of course, from such suddenly live literary creatures as "Peter Pan’s" ticking-clock crocodile and the Wicked Witch of the West’s fearsome flying monkeys, direct from Oz.)

Clearly, Mo and Meggie need allies all their own to vanquish Capricorn and rescue Resa.

If only they could trust Dustfinger, who’s too devoted to his own desires to offer unconditional support.

At least they can count on the starchy Elinor (Helen Mirren), Meggie’s great-aunt. Alas, she’s a devoted bibliophile who knows books far better than life. "Inkheart" author Fenoglio (Jim Broadbent) also agrees to assist; he’s simply delighted to see his imaginary creations alive and kicking — even if they’re up to no good.

Good thing Farid (Rafi Gavron), one of the 40 Thieves who made life so complicated for Ali Baba, is eager to break free of his criminal past. Our heroes could use his cunning as they undertake their possibly not-impossible mission. (Too bad Mo doesn’t think to summon Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood and/or Hercules to help out on the perilous quest.)

And while there are times when that perilous quest seems a bit routine, "Inkheart" does conjure a few imaginative variations on its familiar themes.

In adapting Funke’s novel, Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire ("Rabbit Hole") develops the central characters with care — a lot more than they often get in movies such as these.

Sometimes, it proves too much, as "Inkheart" threatens to bog down under the weight of its plot complications.

But director Iain Softley (whose credits range from the wonderful "Wings of the Dove" to the murky "Skeleton Key") wisely resists the temptation to transform "Inkheart" into a special-effects extravaganza.

To be sure, the movie doesn’t stint on obligatory, computer-generated sequences, from a twister straight out of Kansas to a climax that conjures the ultimate creature of darkness, known simply as the Shadow. (He looks something like "Fantasia’s" Chernabog, the giant demon from the eerie "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence.)

To its credit, "Inkheart" maintains its focus on the magical way books fire our imaginations, creating worlds than often seem more real than our own.

The movie’s game cast adds to the illusion, with the rugged yet tender Fraser and the plucky, earnest Bennett making an appealing father-daughter duo. Oscar-winners Mirren and Broadbent breathe quirky life into their book-besotted characters, while Serkis struts and seethes with slimy glee.

Yet it’s Bettany who saves the day (and steals more than his share of scenes), giving Dustfinger a compelling complexity that reflects "Inkheart’s" darker impulses. (In the "Star Wars" universe, he’d be Han Solo — not a villain, exactly, yet not a gung-ho hero either. Unless, of course, there’s something in it for him.)

They’re all good company in a movie that’s a pleasing diversion — yet, somehow, never becomes anything more than that.

If only "Inkheart" had left a bit more to our imagination, it might have conjured a little more magic.

Then again, even a little magic is better than none.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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