When I was a kid whenever councils or committees tried to encourage kids to read, they always invented some kind of mascot, and for me it was Cap’n O. G. Readmore. Every Saturday morning after the cartoons, he’d show up to remind kids to read, and explain how much fun reading was. “The Pagemaster” has good intentions but deep down it feels disingenuous and an awful lot like a glorified Saturday Morning special turned in to a big feature. At barely eighty minutes in length, it’s a mediocre, dreary, occasionally boring film that you can’t help but feel like it could have been shown as a TV movie.
A mix of “Neverending Story” and “The Wizard of Oz,” Joe Johnston’s mix of live action and animation, features nineties star Macaulay Culkin as Richard Tyler. Tyler is a kid who is afraid to take risks and often hears his dad bemoan why his son doesn’t look for more adventure. When he sends Richard out for an errand, he’s stuck in a horrible storm and takes shelter in a massive library. After being encouraged to apply for a library card by the weird library Mr. Dewey, Richard is lost in the library and falls passing out. When he awakens, he realizes he’s animated—er—“illustrated” in a fantasy land and has to find his way back with the help of a trio of anthropomorphic, friendly books named Horror, Fantasy, and Adventure.
For a movie that purports to want to encourage its target audience to pick up a book and read, “The Pagemaster” never rises above being kind of preachy, and incredibly boring. The movie only has about seventy five minutes to hook in the audience, and the writers don’t give us much of a reason to root for Richard beyond “Hey kids! It’s Macaulay Culkin!” We’re not entirely sure why his character is so hell bent on safety, we’re never given a reason why his parents are stressed out by his attitude, and the message is muddied in the finale. Is the moral to seek out adventures and always be willing to take risks? Is the moral that all the adventure we need is in a book and only a book? Is the moral staying true to yourself is true heroism?
Who—or what–is the villain of the movie? Is it illiteracy, or ignorance of the appeal of reading? And what do the books have to do with the overall resolution and the premise altogether? “The Pagemaster” fancies itself an adventure about the joy of opening a book, but there’s never a very interesting implementing of the concept. Even the inclusion of three comedic sidekicks that are literally talking books never quite gets the message across. That said, the animation is quite good, and I love the voice work from Whoopi Goldberg, Patrick Stewart and Frank Welker. They’re just sadly wasted in what is a terribly forgettable and bland vehicle that, with a tad more imagination, might have been so much better.