Cinematic Flashback: The Pagemaster (1994) Review
Fiction A to Z…. where is possible. Where a boy’s imagination can take root and grow to incredible heights, where a boy’s courage is wind that moves him to discovery, and where your journey begins in this “cinematic flashback” for 1994’s The Pagemaster…
“All the adventure your imagination can hold”
Director: Joe Johnston (live-action) and Pixote (Maurice) Hunt (animated)
Writer: David Casci, David Kirschner, and Ernie Contreras
Starring: Maculay Culkin, Christopher Lloyd, Whoopi Goldberg, Patrick Stewart, Frank Welker
Run Time: 80 Minutes
Release Date: November 23rd, 1994
Richard Tyler is a timid young boy, who spouts statistics about the possibility of accidents. So much so, he is scared to do anything that might endanger him, like riding his bike, or climbing into his treehouse. While riding his bike home, Richard finds shelter from a storm inside a nearby library, kindly taking in by the librarian Mr. Dewey. While exploring the library’s rotunda, Richard slips and is knocked unconscious. Upon awakening, he is greeted by a wizard named “The Pagemaster” and sets the young boy on a journey through conflicts and events that resemble fictional stories. With the aid of three anthropomorphic talking books (i.e. Horror: a fearful “hunchbook” with a misshapen spine, Adventure: a swashbuckling pirate book, and Fantasy: a sassy / caring fairy tale book), Richard discovers more about himself as he “look to the books” for guidance as the quartet journey to find the exit from the library.
Growing up in the 90s, I remember when this movie came out (I was roughly nine years old when it did). I missed seeing in theaters, but I remember watching every now and again on VHS. Truthfully, I liked it. The Pagemaster was full of child-ish wonder and excitement and definitely had that classic kid’s hero journey (and empowerment) from start to finish; something that I’ve always loved growing up. It’s kind of like The Wizard of Oz meets The NeverEnding Story (in way); focusing on the important of books and reading and hero’s journey (atypical) for a fantasy adventure of discovery. Additionally, I love how the movie utilized the library setting of books and stories (classic ones of the genres) to tell the bulk of the narrative and how the film’s characters journey into the realms, encountering characters from classic literature (i.e. Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde, Captain Ahab, and Long John Silver…just to name a few. It all works for a compelling / entertaining kids movie of finding inner courage and friendship, which is always fundamental trait for characters (and us) to learn. My personal favorite scene is when the group first ventures into the fantasy genre. That whole montage sequence, accompanied by the song “Whatever You Imagine” by Wendy Moten is really enchanting and perhaps one of the most memorable scenes in the entire film. Love that son
The main problem about this movie is that its somewhat scant its notion of traversing through the literary fiction worlds of books (i.e. the genres of horror, adventure, and fantasy). When I was younger, I loved the journey that the characters going on, but I always thought there could’ve been more to the film. The movie stays briefly in horror genre realm, too long in the adventure genre realm, and underutilizes the fantasy genre realm beyond the film’s climax moments. Coinciding with that, I always wanted to see more literary novel cameo appearances from children’s classic novels… something like encountering Dracula or Frankenstein (a deleted scene was planned for this encounter) in the horror genre, Robinson Crusoe or Robin Hood in the adventure genre, or some type of fairy tale princess (i.e. Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White, etc.) in the fantasy genre. I know that the film’s runtime had to be short, but I always felt like a missed opportunity, which was my biggest pet peeve of the movie.
Another problem is that the film was (and still is) overlooked by many viewers out there. It’s not necessarily a bad movie or anything like that, but it’s definitely one of those movies that didn’t become well-known or memorable as the years passed away. In truth, it’s kind of faded into the background of children’s animated films, which is disappointing. Of course, the year of the film’s release (i.e. 1994) plays a part in that, with Disney’s “renaissance” era of animated feature films reaching its zenith (releasing The Lion King that very same year) and with Pixar releasing Toy Story the following year. Thus, it was a transitional period of animated motion pictures and The Pagemaster, despite its attempts, didn’t have the lasting sustaining power to endure in its theatrical run and not so much within its legacy. Although, there is a sense of nostalgia of rewatching it, especially those who grew up with it.
That being said, the film does employ several recognizable acting talents to play the feature’s characters, including Home Alone child star (at the time) Maculay Culkin as the protagonist character of Richard Tyler and Back to the Future’s star Christopher Lloyd as the wizened librarian Mr. Dewey / the wizard The Pagemaster. Culkin’s youthful talents lend the emotional weight and stereotypical child hero’s journey for the movie and does a good job as Richard Tyler, while Lloyd lends his seasoned gravitas in the sage-like characters of Dewey / Pagemaster. Other noteworthy talents, including Whoopi Goldberg, Patrick Stewart, and Frank Welker, fill out the rest of the characters and (for the most part) are presented well enough to make them fun and amusing throughout.
The movie was spilt into live-action sequences and cartoon animated sequences, with the animated piece taking centerstage for majority of the film (the live-action sequences basically bookended). The animation was good for its time and it was kind of interesting to see how they rendered Culkin and Lloyd into their cartoon animation personifications (or rather “illustrations”). While the overall animation wasn’t as sharp and crisp as say Disney’s feature film, the movie’s cartoon sequences were represented well-enough to give a distinct look and feel. The climatic ending scene with a dragon was also quite intricately detailed for the feature and was probably the hardest sequence to render (animation-wise). In addition, the film’s jokes, while not always landing probably, do make for some fun literary / book references, with reading pun lines like “You really are a classic” or “How’d you like to curl up with a good book” …. that sort of thing. Also, the music for the film (composed by James Horner) was great and filled with adventurous sounding music of danger and wonderment; perfectly complementing the film’s visual moments.
As a side-note, while the movie did receive a G rating, there are several scary moments in the film and should’ve been rated PG (just a fair warning to some parents out there).
The Pagemaster is a whimsical fantasy adventure that all the makings of a memorable children’s movie endeavor, even though it lacks a balanced storytelling pacing (within the three genres worlds) as well as missing out on some literary fun within its own premise. There’s plenty childhood nostalgia for those growing up in the 90s era with the movie, but the newer generation might find it outdated. In the end, it’s a charming movie that promotes the joy of reading and getting “lost” within the tales therein, which is always a good thing.
Cinematic Flashback Score: 3.9 Out of 5
Fun Note: Actor Christopher Lloyd’s character, Mr. Dewey, is named after the Dewey Decimal System, a system of organizing books in library.