The Pagemaster Revisited 25 Years Later

Title: The Pagemaster

Release: November 23, 1994

Director: Joe Johnston (live action), Maurice Hunt (art animation)

Writer(s): David Kirschner, David Casci, Ernie Contreras

Starring: Macaulay Culkin, Christopher Lloyd, Patrick Stewart, Whoopi Goldberg

*Warning, this review may contain spoilers.

KEVIN! Oh Kevin, Kevin, Kevin McAlister, why did you have to grow up. Wait, did I say Kevin? I mean Macaulay Culkin. When viewed through today’s glasses, Macaulay’s career was pretty short-lived. However short-lived it may have been, during his run, he was red-hot and could do no wrong. Heck, he was a household name among kids. Uncle Buck, Home Alone 1 and 2, My Girl, Richie Rich, the Good Son. We’re talking blockbusters and family favorites here! Everyone remembers Macaulay, so why have we all forgotten about his live-action / animated crossover The Pagemaster? Fret not, I’m here to refresh your memory.

But first, the story…

Richard Tyler (Culkin) is a neurotic and cowardly little boy who lives his life with calculated risk, if any risk at all. On a mission to the hardware shop to get a box of nails for his father, he wrecks his bicycle when a storm pops up out of nowhere. He runs into the nearest building which just so happens to be a library. There he discovers the Pagemaster, a librarian known as Mr. Dewey (Christopher Lloyd) who leads him to the fiction section, and this is where the movie really starts to pick up.

The mural on the library ceiling melts and animated paints engulf Richard turning him and the world around him into a cartoon. From here he must go on an action-packed adventure full of peril and danger in order to return to the real world (non-animated world). Along the way he discovers himself and faces his fears.

Turn the Page

25 years ago, November 23rd, 1994, The Pagemaster hit theaters with the force of a child’s paperback book hitting the floor – soft and weak. I hear you sitting there, “the Page-amawudda?” It’s definitely a real movie that kids really enjoyed, but you have forgotten. And I’ll say it right now: you didn’t actually forget, you just repressed the memory. It’s really not a great movie all-around, but it does technically have a start, middle, and end, so technically it IS a movie. If that helps any. I don’t know. But I do know that it’s pretty underwhelming.

As a kid, I remember enjoying The Pagemaster, but I never fell in love with it the way I did with whatever hot Disney movie was out at the time… Probably The Lion King. It took 80 minutes to watch it, and probably 5 minutes to forget it. 25 years later, as an adult, I sit here completely underwhelmed. I found this Blu-Ray in a $5 bin at a Best Buy and thought my 4 year old daughter might actually love it. 30 minutes in and I can see that she is beyond bored. Don’t worry hun, you’re not alone. As I struggle to stay focused, I ask myself… It’s a cartoon with action, why are kids not interested?

There’s a certain formula for animated kids movies that tend to succeed, so it surprised me to see these writers and directors voluntarily throw that formula in the trash. The successful formula features likable cutesy characters (Pagemaster: sort of check), some action and occasional scares (Pagemaster: check), captivating animation and colors (Pagemaster: miss), and catchy tunes that will have your kids dancing (Pagemaster: hard miss).

As if the writers and directors were trying to steal a page from Don Bluth, The Pagemaster leans a little heavy on the dark and gloomy. Thematically, it is a little darker than most G-rated movies today, but definitely nothing like a Bluth movie. What makes it Bluth-esque are the muted colors and lack of traditional kid songs. Don’t get me wrong though, I am NOT comparing Joe Johnston / Maurice Hunt (the directors) to the genius of Don Bluth, only stating some visual and thematic comparisons.

Secret of Nimh, a Don Bluth classic. While lacking in bright vibrant colors, it is rich in detail and perfection in style. Absolutely brilliant.

Conclusion

Overall, The Pagemaster had all the right tools for success. A big budget ($30+ million), a massive and still-budding household name movie star (Culkin), top-quality voice actors (Patrick Stewart and Whoopi Goldberg), and a proven up-and-coming director in Joe Johnston (Rocketeer and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids). And not to mention the inimitable Christopher Lloyd. What could go wrong? Honestly, I have no clue where the disconnect was between pre-production and the final result, but the disappointing theatrical release paired with the negative critical response (rightfully so) led to The Pagemaster flying pretty far under the radar. For what it’s worth, I have to give credit to the acting.

THE PAGEMASTER, Horror (right, Frank Welker), Richard Tyler (voice: Macaulay Culkin), Fantasy (top, voice: Whoopi Goldberg), Adventure (bottom, voice: Patrick Stewart), 1994. ©20th Century Fox Film Corp..

As time went on, The Pagemaster slipped further and further into obscurity, along with Macaulay’s post-1995 acting career. If being “as average as average could be” were an award… well… You get where I’m going with this. 1st place. For a 1994 animated feature film, it sure looks a lot like a 1984 laser-disc arcade game a la Dragon’s Lair. Some animated scenes are absolutely stunning thanks to some quality computer animation, but most are dull and boring. Sure, it’s a little more advanced than that, but not by much. Character shading rarely matches the backgrounds, colors seem a little inconsistent at times, and textures are wholly missing. I wouldn’t call it an eyesore, but it does absolutely nothing to wow the viewer, even by early-90s standards. Visually, The Pagemaster is as flat and bland as its overall presentation and delivery.

For the Parents

For all you parents out there who may be my age (mid 30s) with young kids, I’m not here to tell you to NOT get it for your kids. But I will definitely say you don’t need this for yourself. Some kids movies carry over well when viewed through a nostalgic adult lens. The Goonies. Toy Story. The Great Mouse Detective. The list goes on. Consider this: The Pagemaster has been buried for 25 years. Put the shovel down. Keep it there. That’s 80 minutes of your kids’ lives you’ll never get back. But if you’re just here to know if it’s appropriate for your kids:

For a 1994 G-rated movie, it’s pretty darn appropriate. Some things used to sneak under the radar back then, but there’s nothing here. There are some scary moments, but no real violence or blood. Language is appropriate and the overall message of facing your fears is positive. It’s a safe watch for any kids that aren’t super sensitive to very mild scary cartoons.

Please help me, sir. I’ve lost my stardom and I can’t find it.

One thought on “The Pagemaster Revisited 25 Years Later

  • 11/23/2019 at 9:51 am
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    Oh Macaulay Culkin…at least he has resurged with the rise of digital media and podcasting.

    Reply

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