1990's, 20th century fox, 2D animation, 90's, 90s movie, adventure, animated, animated feature, animated movie, animated movie review, animation, animators, book, books, captain ahab, cartoon review, christopher lloyd, classic literature, david kirschner, dr. jekyll, dream away, edward hyde, fairies, fairy tale, Fantasy, film, film review, frank welker, frankenstein, george hearn, ghost stories, hand drawn animation, haunted house, henry jekyll, Horror, James Horner, jim cummings, joe johnston, leonard nimoy, library, literature, living books, macaulay culkin, moby dick, mother goose, movie, movie review, mr. hyde, Non-Disney, nostalgia, obscure animated movie, obscure animation, pagemaster, patrick stewart, puns, review, stephen king, The Pagemaster, the strange case of dr. jekyll and mr. hyde, traditional animation, treasure island, turner animation, wendy moten, whatever you imagine, whoopi goldberg
I expected this movie to have a few votes from those who remembered it as kids. I never expected it to win by a landslide. Lesson learned: never underestimate a nostalgic kids’ movie from the ’90s.
Once upon a time, David Kirschner, producer of An American Tail among other things, took his daughters to the New York Public Library. This visit inspired him to write a story about a fantastical adventure that would get kids excited about reading. The result was The Pagemaster, a 1994 box-office bomb that would go on to develop a cult following among children like me who grew up watching it. Animation historians tend to lump The Pagemaster in with the likes of Thumbelina or Quest For Camelot: 90s features that tried to coast off the success of Disney’s Renaissance films yet failed to match their caliber. But actually, trailers for The Pagemaster played in theaters and on home video a good four years before the movie was released…it was still in production for most of that time so the amount of influence Disney had on it is up for debate, but the point remains. I’m willing to bet what played a major part in its delay was the myriad of problems that cropped up during the filmmaking, from David Kirschner suing the Writers Guild of America for not receiving the sole story credit he felt was owed, to the plot being rewritten in the middle of the animation process, which is never a good thing. I’ve also heard stories about Macaulay Culkin being a diva on set, but knowing what we know now about his abusive father explains a lot so I’m not holding that against him.
And here’s another fun fact I dug up while doing my research: apparently Stephen King of all people wrote the treatment for The Pagemaster, which certainly explains the film’s more horrific elements. Does this means this movie is technically part of the King multiverse? I can see Richard hanging out with The Losers Club on weekends and trying to avoid killer clowns and langoliers in his spare time.
Though it was released under the 20th Century Fox banner, The Pagemaster was the first of only two animated films created by Turner Feature Animation, an off-shoot of Hanna-Barbera founded by media mogul Ted Turner. In hindsight, it’s not surprising that Turner had a hand in this children’s flick with an educational message. Let’s not forget the last animated project he invested himself in was all about teaching kids environmentalism in the cheesiest way possible.
But unlike Captain Planet, does The Pagemaster hold up after all these years? Will it get kids sucked into the magic of reading? And how long can I go without forcing in a Home Alone reference? Read on and find out.
The opening credits fade in over clouds swirling into foreshadowing images while the stirring main theme by James Horner plays. Say what you want about this movie, Horner’s score emerges smelling like a rose, easily the best thing to come from this film. Disney’s even used it for some of their trailers. Also, when you take the bulk of the cast into consideration, it’s astonishingly appropriate that the man who scored The Wrath of Kahn provided the soundtrack for this feature.
The ominous call-forward clouds are part of a nightmare that our protagonist, a typical 90s nerd named Richard Tyler (Macaulay Culkin) startles awake from. He crawls out of bed and overhears his parents (Ed Begley Jr. and Mel Harris) discussing their son’s neuroses. See, it’s not enough that Richard is a nerd; he’s also afraid of everything that casts a shadow. His room is plastered with safety precautions, he studies all manner of deathly statistics to the point where he can recite them at the drop of a hat and is considered a general buzzkill by all who know him, especially his father. This is where we come to our first bump in the road, and it’s not just that Richard acts in a way that no kid would, not even scaredy-cat kids like Chuckie Finster: it’s the moral they’re trying to set up.
The Pagemaster’s original screenplay was about a boy who didn’t like reading and learned to love it, but there were many rewrites during production that altered it so it’s about Richard learning to overcome his fears through the power of books. That makes the point rather redundant – why teach someone who’s already a bookworm to love books? I argue that it’s about snapping Richard out of his obsession over statistics and panic-inducing facts that are holding him back from living a fulfilling life, and finding courage and meaning from beloved stories instead. Not a terrible lesson, but one that could have been communicated better. In fact, such a moral would be much more suited for today; with the constant stream of news updates through the internet leading to anxiety over everything, turning away from devices for a while and finding solace through well-written fiction is a decent message. And I’m not saying that kids today shouldn’t be aware of big issues our planet faces – look at Greta Thunberg – but if you’re suffering from borderline pantophobia, then maybe seeking some escapism through print (and also finding a therapist) is a good place to start.
Mr. Tyler is building his son a treehouse in order to help him get over his fear of heights. Richard, of course, refuses to have anything to do with it and states some statistics about ladders and household accidents. He then unwittingly hits his dad in the head with a bucket which causes him to have an accident and fall out of the treehouse, thus proving his point. Honestly, I’d have more respect for Richard if he did it on purpose just to validate himself. What a grade-A troll he’d make.
Eager to get his son out of his hair, Mr. Tyler tasks him with picking up some nails from the hardware store. Richard takes his bike, both covered in so much superfluous safety gear that he looks like he’s ready to go policing in a sci-fi dystopia.
And yes, you read that credit correctly. Joe Johnston, director of The Rocketeer and the first Captain America movie directed the live-action segments of The Pagemaster. From what I’ve gathered, he’s not too pleased to have his name attached to this project. I suppose he’s upset that he couldn’t have his credit changed to Alan Smithee.
On his way into town, Richard passes some kids riding their bikes off a construction ramp. They try to goad him into joining them and call him chicken when he doesn’t, just in case you didn’t catch what his character arc will be. Richard continues forward, and if you think Maurice’s trip to the fair went south in Beauty and the Beast, then you haven’t watched this movie. Lightning strikes the power lines, he’s forced through a tunnel where the lights explode in succession after him, and he gets lost in a dark, creepy park during a storm. I’m almost tempted to say the movie is trying to kill him.
Richard crashes his bike in front of the most ominous library outside of a Ghostbusters movie and seeks shelter there. The only person inside is eccentric old librarian Mr. Dewey, played by Christopher Lloyd. He constantly interrupts Richard to guess what kind of book he thinks he’s looking for all while getting very dramatic and dangerously close to the young boy. I laugh at it because of how over-the-top Lloyd’s acting is, but uncomfortably so. As a kid, I thought he was being very wise and passionate about the stories he looks after, but as an adult, it’s hard not to look at this scene and call stranger danger on it.
Mr. Dewey directs Richard to a phone where he can call his parents, gives him a library card if he feels like checking a book out, and casually points out the big green exit sign should he decide to leave. Richard wanders through the library until he comes across an awesome-looking mural in the rotunda depicting scenes from Moby Dick, Treasure Island, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde…umm, Dragonslayer, I guess, and a wizard who bears more than a passing resemblance to Mr. Dewey.
Richard slips on the wet floor and knocks himself out. When he comes to, paint from the mural gushes to the floor, turns into a dragon-like blob and chases him through the library, turning anything it touches turns into a painted background. The blending of computer and traditional animation for the dragon is surprisingly excellent. It’s plain to see that a lot of work went into this one creature. When I can’t tell where the hand-drawn animation begins or ends, that’s a good sign.
Ultimately the dragon catches Richard and transforms him into an animated character – no, not a character, an illustration, says someone from the shadows. That someone is the master of the animated literary realm Richard’s been transported to, keeper of the books and guardian of the written word, The Pagemaster (also voiced by Lloyd).
This animated version of the library is where all the stories ever written call home (though Horner’s score is what really sells the wonder of the moment). Here, books are, quite literally, transports to another world. Open a book and characters, creatures and objects from that story emerge from them. The Pagemaster demonstrates this by summoning a fairytale giant and the Argo from Jason and the Argonauts just for show. Richard’s more interested in finding his way home and the Pagemaster tells him that he must pass three tests in order to reach the Exit. He sends him off on his quest with a word of advice: when in doubt, look to the books.
Richard is swept up on a book cart and crashes into his first comic relief sidekick for the evening, Adventure, a cantankerous sentient book who acts like a pirate and is played by Sir Patrick Stewart. Stewart is one of the finest actors of the stage and screen and a damn good human being (seriously, look up his speeches about domestic violence) but I’ve noticed that when it comes to animated films, he tends to skew towards the…not so good ones. Not only did he turn down roles in Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, but for every Prince of Egypt, there’s a Chicken Little, Gnomeo and Juliet, Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return and Emoji Movie that proudly boasts his name. It’s mind-boggling and frustrating to hear such talent reduced to voicing shit.
The best thing I can say about Adventure is that at least Stewart sounds like he’s having fun playing him. I should know, getting paid to talk like a pirate is the best job ever.
Adventure changes his tune when he sees Richard’s library card and offers to help the boy if he checks him out from the library. He tells Richard to go up a ladder to get their bearings, but Richard refuses on account of his acrophobia and prattles off some of those annoying statistics. Adventure tries to change his mind about climbing by opening 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and unleashing the giant squid, which is like helping someone overcome their fear of flying by shooting them out of a cannon.
The squid throws Richard in the air but he’s rescued by another living book, Fantasy (Whoopi Goldberg). Fantasy subverts the warm fairy godmother stereotype she’s modeled after with her frequent bouts of sarcasm and stubbornness; whereas Stewart is playing a role, Whoopi is pretty much playing herself. Under normal circumstances, Fantasy would use her magic to poof Richard to the Exit, but since she’s outside of her section her powers are considerably weakened. Regardless, she also promises to help Richard if he takes her home with him. Fantasy and Adventure butt heads over who’s going to be second banana to our protagonist. Adventure insists he’s the only one who knows where they’re headed and gets Richard to open up The Hound of Baskervilles, with predictable results.
The Hound chases the trio until they jump through a bookcase into the horror section, full of spooky graveyards and assorted Halloween detritus. The Exit Sign appears through the fog but leads them to a massive and obviously haunted mansion that they must pass through in order to proceed. Richard rings the bell, which knocks the final member of the team, Horror (Frank Welker), into his arms. Horror’s my favorite of the bunch, at least he would be if I had to pick one. For one thing, with all the fairly big names in the cast, it’s refreshing to hear a veteran voice actor playing one of the lead roles. Horror’s the least like the genre he represents, a sweet dimwit who just wants some friends. I don’t know, maybe I just have a soft spot for lonely ugly-cute marshmallow characters.
Speaking of, the designs for the books aren’t exactly appealing with large faces plastered right on their spines and little arms and legs sticking out of their lumbering square bodies. Horror’s look, however, comes the closest to working since he’s modeled after Quasimodo and isn’t supposed to be Mr. Universe if you catch my drift. He even gets some moments of good wild animation, especially when he’s “describing” what frightens him.
But one line, one solitary bit of dialogue has always stuck with me: “Horror always has sad endings”. It’s a shockingly deep statement that sums up the tragedy of his situation, and also why I’ve never been that big on the genre. The monster’s dead, everyone’s safe, you think it’s all ok, then BOOM. It pops up again, slaughters every character you’ve grown to care for and sets up a neverending chain of watered-down sequels and reboots.
Fantasy assures Horror her world is a place of happy endings, and Richard allows him to come along for the ride. The group ventures into the mansion, which looks perfect as far as haunted houses go. It’s caught somewhere between traditional Gothic and German Expressionism with its impossibly high ceilings, winding staircases, cobwebbed cracks in the walls and looming shadows. The team then meets the mansion’s owner, Dr. Henry Jekyll, played by…Leonard Nimoy?!
It goes without saying that Nimoy is magnetic as both Jekyll and his wicked counterpart. He encapsulates the madness and depravity of the latter with a cackle and a single line, and he plays the former with a warm air of wisdom and sophistication (the fact that he serves his Hyde potion in a martini glass should clue you in on that trait). It makes me wish we got to see Nimoy play Jekyll and Hyde in a more straightforward adaptation before he passed away.
Adventure is ready to help himself to some of Jekyll’s cocktail but Horror knocks it out of his hands and the spill burns a hole through the floor.
Richard and the gang are too late to stop Jekyll from drinking his concoction and he undergoes a harrowing transformation into his evil alter-ego, Edward Hyde. And hoo boy, did this scene reopen a can of worms. Imagine you’re a five-year-old enjoying this fun little animated escapade of talking books and magic and then this gets all up in your face.
All this to say even after all these years, Mr. Hyde still kind of puts me on edge. I remember my dad taught me how to use the fast-forward button on the VCR just so I could rush through this part. I even wished for and made up a kind of video player where you could skip entire scenes for the sole purpose of avoiding Hyde’s reveal.
Hyde attacks the group but Horror accidentally saves them by dropping a chandelier on him.
Horror gets tangled up in the chains and is about to be pulled through the floor along with Hyde. Fantasy begs Richard to save him but he’s too scared to. He doesn’t even try to weasel out of it by saying he has bone spurs or some other lame excuse, he just stands there and shrugs as one of his friends is about to die. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen. I know Richard’s supposed to learn courage over the course of the movie but not even attempting to try is pretty low. It’s not like there’s any danger in the situation or a possibility that Hyde will pop back up again; the freak’s too busy dragging Horror down, laughing maniacally in the dark as he anticipates pulling one helpless victim to their doom along with him.
Anyway, Fantasy has enough and rescues Horror herself. As for Hyde, he goes down the hole never to be seen again.
Now that I’m more familiar with the stories featured in this movie more so than when it was released, seeing them come and go rather quickly without diving into their essence is disappointing…but perhaps that was intentional. Maybe by leaving these sequences fairly open-ended and giving us the most basic of recaps, the movie is encouraging kids to check out the books themselves and come to their own conclusions about how and why these are timeless, fascinating tales.
Or at the very least, they could pick up an illustrated abridged version. Try getting a six-year-old to sit through the complete Moby Dick.
After fleeing Hyde, Richard and the gang run into some possessed books – in other words, they’re haunted by ghost stories.
They evade the spirited tomes and had things worked out differently, they would have immediately had a perilous encounter with another famous literary horror character, Frankenstein’s monster. Poor Frankie M. made it to the poster and a few promotional picture books but not the final film. It’s not clear why he was cut; maybe the director felt the sequence was running long or he got worried the kids watching this would be too scared by this point. Frankly, anything that comes after Hyde pales in comparison. You could throw the worst of Lovecraft our way and it still wouldn’t be half as terrifying as he was.
The team makes it outside, but are trapped on a high vine-covered wall. Richard is too scared to climb down until the Pagemaster possesses a gargoyle to give some on-the-nose words of encouragement.
Richard Tarzans his ways to safety, and everyone celebrates their escape. The sun rises, clearing the way to the ever-elusive Exit Sign and Adventure’s home turf, a beach stretching into the open sea. Out on the ocean, they come across the crew of the Pequod. They’re searching for the white whale Moby Dick at the behest of Captain Ahab, voiced by George Hearn.
Hmm, George Hearn playing an overly dramatic psychopath hellbent on bloody vengeance? Can’t imagine where they got that casting idea from.
Ahab spies his quarry off the port bow and the color scheme dramatically shifts into a fiery red while the mad captain’s eyes glow and he turns into a Frank Miller drawing.
I don’t know why they went with this abrupt change in hue, but frankly my dear I don’t give a damn. It’s a visual representation of Ahab’s unhinged thirst for violence teetering on demonic possession that just looks really cool. Also, like Nimoy before him, Hearn makes the most of his screen time, giving a stirring rendition of some of Ahab’s immortal lines.
…Then Moby Dick pounces on top of him and kills him and his crew instantly.
But Moby’s not done dicking around yet and he smashes Richard’s boat too. Richard and Adventure latch on to some driftwood, but it looks like Fantasy and Horror didn’t make it and there are sharks closing in.
The good news: they’re quickly rescued.
The bad news: they’re taken prisoner aboard the Hispaniola which is under the command of Long John Silver (Jim Cummings) and his crew of cutthroat pirates.
Well, calling them cutthroat is generous. The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything are more threatening than these guys.
Also, one of the pirates is voiced by Robert Picardo and…do you think David Kirschner just wanted to make one big Star Trek crossover movie but the execs shot it down so he turned it into this cute family flick starring cast members from almost every iteration of the franchise? Like, Picard and Guinan are banished to another dimension inspired by various Holodeck fantasies thanks to a resurrected omniscient Commander Kurge (just another one of Q’s little tests for humanity) and are tasked with protecting a young boy, the son of Henry Starling, who’s the key to defeating him as they find their way back home. They wind up in a desolate corner of the universe where they meet Spock, who’s been working on a top-secret formula that will supposedly make human urges easier to differentiate in important decision-making. But plot twist! It’s really Evil Spock the whole time, and his formula will purge all good from those who consume it! They escape, desperate to warn this dimension’s Federation of Evil Spock’s plan but run into an insane Dr. Berel and are later captured by The Doctor, who has rebelled from his programming and taken up piracy along with a renegade band of Romulans. I’m no Star Trek aficionado, but this is something I’d like to see!
Silver takes away Richard’s library card and forces him and Adventure to join his treasure hunt on (where else?) Treasure Island. But like in the story this is based on, the pirates are enraged to learn that the treasure has already been looted and they mutiny against Silver. Before things get ugly, Fantasy and Horror arrive to save their friends. It turns out they didn’t drown after all due to Horror discovering his hump is hollow and they floated to shore on it.
Then there’s a fight scene where Horror and Fantasy take out the pirates using goofy slapstick. It isn’t too bad, but it doesn’t touch Muppet Treasure Island in comedy. Richard also stands up to Silver and gets him to back off, which earns the old sea dog’s respect. This makes this sequence the most faithful of all the quick adaptations we’ve seen thus far, essentially turning Richard into a stand-in for Jim Hawkins and having him go through an abridged version of his arc. It would have resonated more, however, if we spent more time with the plot and characters of this story, so we’d really feel something when Richard asserts himself. The Pagemaster is a scant seventy-five minutes, but with all the possibilities for expanding upon these different novels in this format with the kind of story they’re trying to tell, this could be a ninety-minute film at the very least. The movie even teases this with some cleverly woven-in shoutouts to other famous works, like Edgar Allen Poe’s Raven appearing in the haunted house, or Richard staggering under an oversized copy of Atlas Shrugged. I wish we could see those tales as part of the plot proper, but they make this literature-based world feel more all-encompassing and less like they’re merely covering the basics, for which I’m grateful for.
Adventure, who got sidelined at the start of the fight and is miffed about missing the action, storms off on his own. This is where the movie sidelines the main plot for a substandard “jerk with a heart of gold learns not to be a jerk to others” subplot. Horror tries to cheer up Adventure and admits he idolizes him, but Adventure bullies and scares him away. Shortly after, Adventure finds Richard’s library card washed up on the beach and returns it, but Fantasy forces him to look for Horror and apologize before they hit the road. He finds him being tied down by the Lilliputians from Gulliver’s Travels. Now Gulliver’s Travels could technically be classified as an adventure story, but really it’s a witty satire in the guise of an adventure. I wonder what we could have gotten if the movie explored other stories that mashed up the genres featured here with ones like mystery or sci-fi or drama. I want to see how Sherlock Holmes, Tom Sawyer, Captain Nemo, and Lizzie Bennett would react to this kid from the future and his three sentient books running around their stories! Or what about ones where the elements of fantasy, horror, and adventure overlap each other? Think about it, A Christmas Carol is both horror and fantasy, The Princess Bride is fantasy and adventure, The Call of Cthulu, A Wrinkle in Time and anything by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett combine all three. I’m sorry I keep going off on these tangents, but the concepts this film presents deserve more exploration than what we’re given.
Adventure rescues Horror and the two reconcile. Fantasy’s wand lights up, indicating that they’re getting closer to her territory and the Exit. Just to be sure she’s got her magic back, she tests it out by turning Adventure into –
Everyone traipses through the jungle into the fantasy section, which goes a bit beyond your average picture book in terms of design. Though the movie’s backgrounds and colors are a bit murky, each world has a distinct visual style. The fantasy realm is like if Arthur Rackham tangoed with Eyvind Earle. It’s not Sleeping Beauty levels of gorgeousness, though it’s close. But once again, the magic of this scene comes from the music. Instead of more instrumental backing, however, we get the movie’s main tune, “Whatever You Imagine”.
I unironically love this song. I’ve said before I’m a sucker for 90s pop ballads and this one is no exception. It’s all about using the power of imagination to follow your dreams and shape the world into a better place, and is complemented by the visuals: some fairies that are rotoscoped in a way that they look like living embodiments of the electricity balls you find at Spencer’s appear and dance on Richard’s palm. There’s a second decent pop song in a similar vein over the end credits, “Dream Away” sung by Lisa Stanfield and Babyface, but “Whatever You Imagine” is my favorite of the two.
Yet, nice as this part is, it’s difficult to overlook the shortcomings. You thought the horror and adventure parts of the movie were rushed? What little we see of the fantasy section is limited to a minute and a half of the song before hurtling into the climax. On top of that, the only representations of fantasy here apart from the fairies are nursery rhymes (with Mother Goose and Humpty Dumpty making five-second cameos), generic familiar fairy tales (most of which, including Rapunzel and Cinderella, also joined Frankenstein’s Monster on the cutting room floor), a faun that looks like it was kidnapped from Fantasia, and a yellow brick road as a shout-out to The Wizard of Oz. I get this was a few years before Harry Potter revolutionized the genre, but no love for Lord of the Rings? No Peter Pan? No Narnia? No Earthsea? No Discworld? Not even Dr. Seuss? And if it’s because they’re sticking with public domain works then they really dropped the ball. I’ve got five words for you: King Arthur, Lord Dunsany, ETA Hoffman, George MacDonald, and any culture’s ancient mythology.
Then again, perhaps it’s for the best that the more recognizable fantasies stay out of this feature. Look at our heroes and tell me they’d survive a minute in A Song of Ice and Fire.
Richard spies the Exit on top of a mountain, but Adventure wanders into a “cave” and accidentally awakens the final boss: a monstrous fire-breathing dragon.
Fantasy summons a magic carpet ripped from her own pages to save Richard and fly them all to the Exit. But the carpet gets singed and crashes on the mountainside, scattering our heroes and causing Fantasy to lose her wand. Richard makes it to the summit but he realizes that in his haste he’s left his book club behind. Adventure decides to face the dragon alone to give Horror and Fantasy time to escape, and this is where we get the culmination of what’s supposed to be Adventure and Fantasy’s belligerent romantic tension throughout the movie and the one truly funny line of dialogue.
Unsurprisingly, the dragon roasts Adventure but he just gets covered in ash and acts like he got bopped on the head instead of burning up like a real book would. This is the fantasy section and a kid’s cartoon on top of that, I’m not gonna argue about the logic. Richard finally finds the courage to go save his friends, but first, he takes a sword, shield, and helmet from the crumbling skeleton of a dead knight.
Wait, that red cross on the shield….oh my god, it’s the dragon and knight from The Faerie Queen!!
All right, let me explain what this means and why it’s a big deal. The Faerie Queen is one of the most revered examples of classic fantasy literature, a collection of six epic poems detailing the adventures of King Arthur expy Prince Arthur aiding knights representing the Twelve Private Virtues on his journey to rescue and marry the titular fairy queen Gloriana. The story of the Red Cross Knight is about Arthur helping said knight fight a dragon to save his lady love. More importantly, it’s about the knight learning to overcome his insecurities while being waylaid by outside forces symbolizing negative influences and slay the monster himself. It’s not hard to see the surface parallels in his adventure and Richard’s. So, point to the movie for subtly including a well-known tale and weaving it into the main plot. I take back what I said about it overlooking the obvious public domain fantasies.
Richard charges in ready to kick some reptilian butt. Unfortunately, he manages to do an even worse job confronting the dragon than Jon Snow and it eats him in one bite. But our hero merely gets the Jonas treatment and winds up trapped inside the dragon’s stomach, which conveniently holds a number of undigested fantasy books. I guess the dragon must be a voracious reader.
Recalling The Pagemaster’s advice, Richard searches through the books to find something that can help him escape. In a bit of on-the-fly ingenuity, he unleashes the titular plant from Jack and the Beanstalk. He rides the plant up and out of the dragon’s throat, grabs his buddies and carries them to the mountaintop where the gates of the Exit are now open. Once inside, they find a very familiar face.
No, of course not. Instead, the Pagemaster appears to greet them. It turns out he’s been guiding Richard through his perils the whole time. Richard is not unreasonably pissed that the seemingly wise and benevolent sage took the Glinda approach of leading him into danger just to teach him a lesson. The small tirade he goes on is honestly refreshing. You don’t see many heroes call out the mentor figure on their trickery.
But all implications aside, the Pagemaster brings up an important point: what would have changed for Richard if he was whisked home just like that? Without the chance to grow, he would have stayed the same cowardly, friendless boy. To back this up, the villains Richard faced appear in the cyclone and proudly remind him of his triumphs. He made the right choices in the face of evil. He looked danger in the eye and kept moving forward. He stood up to others without hesitating. Even the dragon returns to salute Richard in its own way. There’s something rather awe-inspiring about these great literary characters returning to congratulate him for facing their challenges. It might not seem like much at face value: what practical use would there be in overcoming fears of things you’d never come across in the real world like pirates or dragons?
The thing is, most literary characters aren’t just there to move the plot from Point A to Point B, but are also a conduit for symbolizing qualities both evil and benign that enhance their stories. In The Pagemaster, as well as in their own tales, Jekyll and Hyde, Ahab, and Silver represent varying levels of obsession and fear. The dragon is especially notable for the latter in this regard since it is the culmination of Richard’s fears and how he views the world as a terrifying, dangerous place beyond his control. It’s the last thing that appears in the opening credits before he wakes up from his nightmare, and is also the form the paint blob takes when chasing him. The dragon was even supposed to appear continuously throughout the film, following Richard and his friends causing trouble for them. That aspect was cut from the final feature, though it left some conspicuous plot holes, namely how Adventure apparently lost his sword somewhere offscreen then finds it in the dragon’s mouth before he wakes it. The most important thing to take away from this, however, is that Richard doesn’t slay the dragon but instead finds a way to overcome it by moving past it, showing how he’s accepted there are things he can’t always control or avoid and chooses instead to move past his fears. If I may borrow some words Neil Gaiman often attributed to G.K. Chesterton, we don’t read fairytales to learn that dragons exist, but to learn that dragons can be beaten.
Richard, having realized how much he’s grown from his adventures, is finally ready to return to the real world. The Pagemaster sends him back along with the books, who turn into ordinary volumes. Richard wakes up on the library floor with Mr. Dewey standing over him in a totally-not-awkward-at-all manner. He remembers his promise to check out the books, but Mr. Dewey takes back Horror and tells him he can only take two home.
Wait, two books?! Only two?? The last time I went to my local library, they let me check out ten! I’m sure the rules are different depending on each district, but I’d say any self-respecting library that would want to maintain a child’s interest in reading would let them borrow a minimum of three books at a time. This seems like a strange last-minute obstacle that serves no real purpose other than making Mr. Dewey look inexplicably pedantic.
Anyway, Mr. Dewey can tell Richard’s upset that he can’t keep his promise to Horror and allows him to take all the books with him just this once. Richard passes by the ramp from the start of the film and makes the jump on his own, proving that he really has changed. It would have been more cathartic if the bullies from before were there to see it, but I suppose the writers felt this had to be something Richard would do more for himself than for anyone else. And I like how once he sticks that landing and does a positive spin on his dour catchphrase, the street lamps knocked out from the storm all light up again, showing all’s right with the world. Later, Richard’s parents come home after searching for their son all night and find him asleep in the treehouse, no longer afraid of anything.
Mr. and Mrs. Tyler let him stay up there, and once they’re gone, Horror, Adventure and Fantasy come to life once again as animated shadows on the wall and revel in their happy ending.
And that was The Pagemaster. As a young kid, I adored it. Nowadays it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure for me. It’s technically not a good movie, but it’s brimming with creative ideas, a few moments of cleverness, some nice visuals, has a good voice cast, an excellent score, and it evokes plenty of nostalgia. I just can’t bring myself to hate it. I also saw a lot of my younger self in Richard, a lit nerd prone to anxiety who found comfort and friendship in the books we traversed through and fantasized about having similar adventures. That, I think, is what really drew me into The Pagemaster back in the day. Plus, as far as an animated children’s film about a geeky kid going into classic tales with a talking book goes, it could have been much, much worse.
In case you’re still wondering if I thought this film succeeded in its message, well, it did make me want to read more, but I already loved reading when I was a child so that might render the point moot. I admire the idea of not laying out everything that happens in each story so as to get kids invested, but that being said the segments could use some beefing up to maintain interest and flesh out the characters more. Frankly, I think the whole concept of The Pagemaster would work much better as an animated series than as a movie. Maybe that was what Turner Animation was going for; if the film was more successful, they could create a spinoff show where the characters explore a new story each week that ties into some kind problem Richard is facing. Think Reading Rainbow meets Tales From the Book of Virtue. Now that Disney technically owns this movie, I’d love to see them develop something like this. Their track record with animated television has been stellar since Gravity Falls. Put this project in the right hands and they’d have another hit.
You know what? Call me out on it all you want, but The Pagemaster gets a three out of five. Watch it if you’re curious or just feeling nostalgic, and be sure to pick up a good book afterward.
Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed this review, please consider supporting me on Patreon. Patreon supporters receive great perks such as extra votes for movie reviews, requests, early sneak-peeks and more. Special thanks to Amelia Jones, Gordhan Rajani and Sam Minden for their contributions, especially at this time.
Considering the theme of this review and the timing of its release, I’d like to leave you with a bit of a positive endorsement: If you’re like me and you’re looking for something to do while in quarantine, especially since all the libraries are closed where I am, I recommend Project Gutenberg and LibriVox. Both offer ways to enjoy beloved pieces of great literature that are largely in the public domain and discover fascinating obscure ones too, and it is completely free. No accounts to sign up for, no monthly payments, just years of classic books online only a click away. I listen to many of them while working or if I need to relax. I hope it’ll help take your mind off of any fears or stress, and I’ll see you tomorrow when movie voting recommences.
Screengrabs courtesy of animationscreencaps.com