*½/**** Image B- Sound B- Extras B-
starring Macaulay Culkin, Christopher Lloyd, Ed Begley, Jr., Mel Harris
screenplay by David Casci, David Kirschner, Ernie Contreras
live-action director Joe Johnston, animation director Maurice Hunt
by Walter Chaw Tailor-made as a public service announcement for going to the library and reading the classics, The Pagemaster makes up for what it lacks in grace with an admirable and perhaps misplaced faith in its audience. Clearly intended as an introduction to discussion rather than a particularly entertaining animated film, it becomes the role of the parents with The Pagemaster to point out the references it makes along the way: Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Melville's Moby Dick, Shelley's Frankenstein, Verne's 20,000 Leagues, Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Swift's Gulliver's Travels. The extent to which a parent is able to fulfill this obligation is the extent to which The Pagemaster is worthwhile; using this film as an eighty-minute babysitter-cum-opiate negates any possible positive effect conferred by the picture--raising the question, clearly, of how best to approach criticism of the piece.
Richard (Macaulay Culkin) is a pathologically fearful child, a timidity bemoaned by primetime parents Mel Harris and Ed Begley, Jr.. After hitting his head on a concrete floor (thus only confirming the tot's fear of serious injury stemming from accident), Richard does a Dorothy Gale into an animated land structured around a library motif, with his Virgils manifesting themselves as books called Adventure (Patrick Stewart), Fantasy (Whoopi Goldberg), and Horror ("voice god" Frank Welker). The titular wizard-like Pagemaster (Christopher Lloyd) is also, of course, the librarian, and as Richard visits the action highlights of the abovementioned classics, can there be any doubt that he discovers his heart, courage, and brain?
While the traditional cel animation looks pretty decent in that washed-out way bespeaking a relatively low budget (and a brief computer-animated sequence, for as bad as it looks, doesn't differ much from the CGI garbage of today, eight years later), The Pagemaster's sensibility is grounded in a thoroughly modern sensationalism. Serious issues surrounding Richard's terror of life are shunted to the side in favour of a series of cacophonous set-pieces, with the overriding message seemingly one of sink or swim--the Home Alone ethos repackaged and threadbare. Taken in one way, the picture discourages contemplation and nuance, locating The Pagemaster as every bit the anti-intellectual kind of drivel that reading embarrasses; taken another, it is a nice starting point for an important conversation with your child about why so many cartoons think children are stupid.
With an insipid song by Babyface and Lisa Stansfield punctuating epiphanies, and extended-metaphor repartee ("I was misfiled by life," "Wanna curl up with a good book?") filling the off-moments between Culkin's million-dollar shrieks, The Pagemaster has an extremely limited appeal. In addition to its possibilities as a starting point to literacy (assuming the literacy of the parent), the film is sort of interesting, too, in a perverse, camp-appreciation kind of way for the dream-team match-up of Lloyd and Culkin (and the reunion of Picard and Guinan...and the meeting of that hologram doctor and Spock). When the best thing you can say about a film is that it might serve as a nice preface to art that's actually worthwhile, however, the logical thing to do would probably be to turn off the television and just serve as that introduction yourself.
Released on a double-sided platter on the Fox Family Feature imprint, The Pagemaster's 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is dull and undistinguished. (The flipside contains a pan-and-scan option.) Whether this is the fault of the source or the techies, I'm not certain, but the overall effect is one of a grimy patina on the animation. While the dimness of the images works in "Horror Land," it's pretty disappointing in "Adventure Land" and "Fantasy Land." The live-action scenes are a little grainy and lacking, too, in sharpness, but free of major flaws save the stray edge enhancement distraction.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundmix is generally underused, though a scene in which a dragon sets a forest alight comes through pretty nicely from every speaker. Dialogue is clear and anchored in the centre channel. The "Making of" docu (22 mins.), while a little gimmicky (Lloyd reprises his librarian character), does manage to provide a good deal of insight into the difficulties of cel animation as well as the odd priorities of the filmmaking team (animation director Maurice Hunt declares, "Animation is the best art form in the history of the world"--a contention at direct contretemps with The Pagemaster's literary ethic). Of note is Culkin, who, by his sulky, smart-alecky attitude, illustrates why 1994 was the last year he made movies for a living. Two theatrical trailers and the video for "Dream Away" (which is essentially shown twice: once before and at the end of the documentary) round out the disc. Originally published: June 5, 2002.