"The Pagemaster" is a feature-length, mostly animated commercial for the pleasures of library-going. It's rare that a kiddie film makes such a show of plumping for the opposition. If the movie succeeds it could backfire for the producers. Kids might stay at home reading "Treasure Island" or "Jack and the Beanstalk" instead of trooping out to see and re-see "The Pagemaster."
That wouldn't be so terrible. Despite its admirable intentions, and some witty animated sequences, "Pagemaster" seems more like a TV animated show with grade-A names. (The voice-overs belong to, among others, Patrick Stewart, Whoopi Goldberg and Leonard Nimoy.) Ironically, the film will probably work best for children who can't yet read.
It begins as a live-action feature about Richard Tyler (Macaulay Culkin), a boy so frightened by everything that he won't even eat a tuna fish sandwich (it's the mercury). When a storm sidetracks him in the local library, he encounters an eerie librarian (Christopher Lloyd) and gets transported into an animated world of bookish adventures ranging from "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" to "Moby Dick."
The live-action library has a moldy grandeur that accurately fits how we all felt when we first tramped through all those high-ceiling shelves in search of our first picture book. There's a wonderfully fluid effect when colors from a mural flow into the floor and sweep Richard up in its maelstrom. And Richard's book-sized buddies--the piratelike Adventure (Stewart), the sassy, ethereal Fantasy (Goldberg) and the blubbery Horror (voiced by Frank Welker)--are frisky fun.
There are a few other nice things, like the scene where Richard winds his way out the belly of a fire-eating dragon by reading "Jack and the Beanstalk." Or the way Christopher Lloyd, intentionally no doubt, is a dead ringer for Charles Dickens. But producer and co-writer David Kirschner, along with scripters David Casci and Ernie Contreras, animation director Maurice Hunt and live-action director Joe Johnston, keep the inspirationalism sticky. A little of this movie's there-is-no-frigate-like-a-book stuff goes a long way.
On the other hand, there may be no other way to get kids to read these days except to promote books as the ultimate voyage--a video game of the mind. And if it takes Culkin to introduce toddlers to Captain Ahab, I say aye, aye.
* MPAA rating: G. It includes a battle with a fire-eating dragon that may scare very little ones.
Macaulay Culkin: Richard Tyler Christopher Lloyd: Mr. Dewey/The Pagemaster Ed Begley, Jr.: Alan Tyler Mel Harris: Claire Tyler A 20th Century Fox release, presented in association with Turner Pictures Inc. of a David Kirschner production. Live-action director Joe Johnston. Animation director Maurice Hunt. Screenplay by David Casci, Kirschner, Ernie Contreras. Live action cinematographer Alexander Gruszynski. Live action editor Kaja Fehr. Music James Horner. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.