“The Pagemaster” (1994)
When reminiscing about our childhoods, we more often than not focus on the good memories — the playing, the laughing and the lack of responsibility. It’s easy, though, to forget those repressed moments of terror in the night or being alienated by peers and bullies. Ultimately, in order to grow out of childhood, we must at some point dive headfirst into our fears and conquer them.
“The Pagemaster” is a story about a boy named Richard (Macaulay Culkin, “Saved!”) who is scared of everything. His parents are at their wits’ end trying to get him to take any risks in life. Richard’s dad even builds him a tree house, but when asked to come up and check it out, Richard just gives a barrage of statistics on the number of household-related accidents.
Finally, Richard’s dad sends him to buy some nails for the tree house, and though Richard isn’t happy about venturing into the world alone, he goes begrudgingly. Arming his bike with a riot shield-like contraption complete with lights and sounds, Richard rides off into the night as a storm brews above. On his way, he encounters the local bullies, who call him a coward for refusing to try jumping their bike ramp.
Eventually, the storm intensifies and Richard must take refuge in a public library. There he meets the strange, yet passionate librarian (Christopher Lloyd, “The Tale of Despereaux”) who gives him an all-important library card. Richard stumbles his way into the main atrium and finds himself beneath a wonderfully colorful mural of famous storybook characters. Richard slips, bumps his head, and wakes up to find himself transformed into a cartoon.
The film, produced by 20th Century Fox, is made in a style similar to any Disney film from that era, though great lengths were taken to differentiate “The Pagemaster” from those Disney hits. For one, “The Pagemaster” incorporates CGI to transition from a live-action movie into a cartoon one: When Richard wakes up from his accident, paint drops begin falling on his head, and looks up to see the ceiling mural melting.
By far, the quality that most distinguishes “The Pagemaster” from its Disney rivals is its maturity. For children, certain scenes are truly terrifying. When the literary character Dr. Jekyll (voiced by Leonard Nimoy, “Star Trek”) drinks a putrid green potion, he transforms into his hideously evil counterpart, Mr. Hyde, in a series of violent convulsions.
Colors play a big role in the film and contribute to these scary moments as well. When Captain Ahab (voiced by George Hearn, “Flags of our Fathers”) sees Moby Dick, insanity consumes him, and the serene blue ocean scene is stained crimson and black to reveal the character’s demonic obsession for with white whale.
The movie is also riddled with allusions, irony and metaphors. The allusions come in the form of the various storybook characters Richard encounters as part of the central plot, but there are more subtle ones incorporated as well, like the raven from Edgar Allen Poe’s classic poem. The instances of irony will escape most children (like when one talking book criticizes another book for not having a spine), but at least the most important message — and consequently the central metaphor of the movie — remains accessible to all age groups. The obstacles Richard faces in the cartoon world mirror those insurmountable hurdles found in the real world.
Whether Richard actually entered the cartoon world or if he dreamt everything up remains largely ambiguous. But on his ride back home at the end of the film, he sees the ramp he knew before he would never able to clear and, suddenly, he is peddling toward it at full speed — with a grin on his face.