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The Pagemaster Reviews

THE PAGEMASTER, a children's adventure intended to extol the virtues of reading, is lively enough that it may rescue a few young borderline illiterates from a life of video games. Yet the film never grapples with the paradox suggested by its central conceit: if a large dose of high-tech Hollywood animation is required to persuade the average kid to open a book, hasn't the battle been lost already? Afraid of germs, terrified of heights, and allergic to risk-taking, Richie Tyler (Macaulay Culkin) is a textbook case of childhood panic. When his parents (Mel Harris and Ed Begley Jr.) send him to the store to buy nails for a treehouse that he hates, a storm breaks and the youngster is forced to take shelter in the public library. Inside, after he meets an enthusiastic librarian (Christopher Lloyd), he falls and receives a conk on the head, which sends him magically into an animated Land of Books. In order to return home in a normal state, the cartoon Richie must undergo three tests of courage; he's to be judged by Adventure, Fantasy, and Horror, who are portrayed as talking books. After he makes the acquaintance of boastful Adventure (Patrick Stewart) a cascade of water emanating from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea nearly drowns the boy; he's rescued by Fantasy (Whoopi Goldberg), and the three get spooked at a haunted house inhabited by both Horror (Frank Welker) and Dr. Jekyll (Leonard Nimoy), who unleashes his inhospitable Mr. Hyde persona on the group. As he encounters literary figures ranging from Captain Ahab to Long John Silver, Richie grapples with his various phobias and bonds with his companions. Then a monstrous dragon cuts off the heroic band's escape route, and Richie must conquer his acrophobia in order to find a shield and sword. Taking cues from the great literature around him, Richie vanquishes the beast and earns his freedom. At the closing, Richie is seen resting snugly in the once-dreaded treehouse with the Adventure, Fantasy, and Horror books by his side. THE PAGEMASTER's premise has great potential, but the film rests on its initial ingenuity and fails to develop the concept in interesting or surprising ways. The weird-looking book companions, voiced with self-mocking gusto by Stewart, Goldberg, and Welker, mark a welcome change from the usual Disney woodland fauna, but the rather mundane exploits they undertake lack the dashing originality that was needed. With hundreds of classics at their disposal, the filmmakers might have woven familiar tales into an imaginative retread with a contemporary spin; instead, they merely browse, plucking characters and story lines from children's literature and simply throwing them up on screen. It's a cartoon extravaganza by way of Cliff Notes. Resorting to his trademark Edvard Munch howl, Culkin makes a remote hero, more animated as a cartoon than in real life. He's become an icon, Garbo for grade-schoolers. Aloof and professional, he acts like visiting royalty deigning to grace this project with his presence. (Mild violence.)