Books can take you to magical, far-off places, to lands you’ve never dreamed of, allowing you to experience all manner of excitement and wonder. I guess movies can do that too, but you wouldn’t know it to watch “The Pagemaster,” an intolerable half-animated excretion that halfheartedly encourages young people to read without ever really committing to the idea. The movie never really commits to anything, in fact. Without credits, it’s only 68 minutes long. I’m not sure the filmmakers even realized they were making a movie.
I’m almost certain Macaulay Culkin didn’t know he was starring in it. It was released in 1994, between “The Good Son” and “Richie Rich.” I suspect Culkin’s parents-slash-handlers just dropped him off on the set one day at around 8, picked him up at 5, then deposited the check, never telling him he’d been in a movie. If you found Macaulay Culkin now — I don’t know how you’d go about doing that, but if you did — and mentioned “The Pagemaster” to him, he probably wouldn’t know what you were talking about. “You mean that time I went to daycare and played with Christopher Lloyd for a couple hours?” he would say. “They were filming that?”
Sporting Harry Potter glasses and removing all traces of personality or charm, Culkin plays Richard Tyler, a 10-year-old boy who is afraid of everything. When his dad (Ed Begley Jr.) builds him a treehouse, Richard refuses to go into it on account of how many accidents involve falling off ladders or out of trees. Richard knows these statistics because he is also a hopeless nerd. The other children in the neighborhood mock him for his timidity, for his armored bicycle, and for his general dweebishness. And they are right to do so. If there were any justice, Richard would be beaten up regularly.
Well, one day Dad sends Richard on an errand in town, and a sudden rainstorm sends the fearful boy running for cover in the nearest building, which happens to be the public library. You are thinking that the library is probably very familiar to a smart, introverted boy like Richard. Surely he reads all the time. But nope, he’s never been here before. His attitude toward books can best be described as indifferent. He’s barely aware of what a library even is.
He’s not the only one, either — the place is empty. Here this town has a huge, ornate public library, and nobody uses it, not even homeless people. The only person inside is the librarian, Mr. Dewey (Christopher Lloyd), who comes across like the owner of a magic-potion store, like the kind of guy who would sell you a monkey’s paw or some other cursed object. Maybe the library would have more patrons if the librarian weren’t creepy.
Richard says he doesn’t want any books, he just wants to use the phone. Mr. Dewey points him in the right direction, straight through the vast rotunda and past the fiction section, then ignores him. Left on his own, Richard slips on some water, hits his head, and wakes up as … a cartoon! He is animated now! For some reason! And Mr. Dewey reappears as a cartoon wizard called the Pagemaster, “keeper of the books, guardian of the written word.” Who knew literacy could be so terrifying?
“I’m a cartoon!” Richard declares. “No, you are an illustration,” the Pagemaster says. The Pagemaster is clinging desperately to the notion that this movie is trying to encourage kids to read books — which have illustrations — when what the movie is really doing is encouraging kids to watch cartoons. Whatever he is, Richard still wants to get out of this awful, awful place (that is, the library), so the Pagemaster points him toward the exit sign, now located far beyond a distant cartoon sea, then abandons him. Just takes off. Look, the Pagemaster doesn’t have time to help every single person who shows up and turns into a cartoon. The Pagemaster has books to keep and written words to guard.
As he walks down the yellow brick road — by which I mean the library corridor — Richard encounters a book that is alive and speaks to him. The book is about pirates; naturally, this means the book itself has an eyepatch and a wooden leg. So is this a world where all books physically resemble their content?? “The Grapes of Wrath” is covered in dust and sweat, and “Pride and Prejudice” is made out of frilly lace, and “The Da Vinci Code” is literally a pile of crap?? Fantastic!
Alas, no. Most of the books are normal books, sitting on the shelves the way books usually do. It’s only this one, the pirate book, that’s anthropomorphic. Perhaps it is possessed by the dark lord Satan? One assumes so. With the pirate-y voice of Patrick Stewart, the book says he’s Adventure — not, it turns out, a specific book, but an entire genre of books. Yet he is also clearly just one book: two covers, a spine, a bunch of pages. Does he not have a title? What do his pages say? He is sad because no one ever checks him out, but can you blame them? Who wants to read an entire genre? You have to specialize, Adventure. You’re a BOOK. How hard can this be?
Adventure says he’ll help Richard find the exit in exchange for Richard checking him out of the library. This is extortion, and harassment of a minor. Adventure will probably have to register as a sex offender. Then they run into another living book, this one called Fantasy and wearing fairy wings and stuff, and bearing the voice of Whoopi Goldberg, which is appropriate, since so many of us have had fantasies involving Whoopi Goldberg. Fantasy, like Adventure and my sister, never gets taken out, and she too demands that Richard take her home. Going from a musty library to the home of a boy who has no interest in reading — for a book, that is at best a lateral move.
Richard then meets a third ambivalent sidekick (“friend” is too strong a word), which is Horror, an Igor-looking monstrosity who’s actually very nice and pleasant. They find him near a house with a sign that says it’s occupied by Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which leads Fantasy to speculate that it must be a duplex. Fantasy, like everyone else in the movie, has never read a book before. This is probably the most illiterate movie about reading that I’ve ever seen.
Now here’s where it gets weird. (It wasn’t weird before. HERE is where it gets weird.) Richard and his three books don’t encounter the book of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” — they encounter the actual Dr. Jekyll. So sometimes in this world the books are living things, and sometimes the living things come OUT of the books, which remain inanimate. What strange book god breathed life into Adventure, Fantasy, and Horror, yet left their shelf-mates insentient? And if characters can pop out of some books, why can’t they pop out of Adventure, Fantasy, and Horror? What are the rules in this bibliotheistic society?
Anyway, Jekyll turns into Hyde, and Richard and his books run away, and suddenly they’re at sea being harassed by Long John Silver from “Treasure Island,” and Capt. Ahab from “Moby Dick” is involved at one point, and Adventure and Fantasy fall in love and kiss, which is weird because they’re books, and then they think Horror has been killed and they’re relieved to find he hasn’t been. “Horror!” Richard declares. “You’re alive!” Yes, thank goodness Horror survived. I wouldn’t want to go on living without Horror in my life!
The point of all this nonsense is sort of that you should read books, but like I said, the movie isn’t prepared to fully commit to that. You need to do some serious thinking before you embrace a position as controversial as pro-literacy. Besides, with all the terrors Richard faced at the hands of these books, viewers aren’t liable to come away with a “hooray for books” message anyway. (“See how fun reading is?? It almost killed this kid!”)
No, the film’s actual point turns out to be that Richard is no longer afraid of every single thing in the world, now that he’s overcome a series of nightmarish obstacles in the company of three nameless, ambulatory books. This is stated by the other characters, who must tell Richard what he has learned in order for him to realize he has learned it. “You prevailed over evil!” one says. “You looked Moby Dick in the eye!” says another, somehow without giggling. Richard turns into a flesh-and-blood human again and, true to his word, takes the books home with him, where Adventure and Fantasy presumably make sweet, sweet book love while Richard looks on in horror and Horror looks on in disgust. The important thing we’ve learned is that libraries are evil places, full of despair and savagery. Teach your children this now, before it’s too late!