On my latest pre-Halloween adventure through the realm of nostalgia, I decided to revisit a movie that—for some reason—absolutely terrified me as a kid: 1994’s The Pagemaster. To say that any movie terrified me is really something, considering that I saw Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom at age five and Jurassic Park was my favorite movie at age six, but evidently watching a tiny, animated Macaulay Culkin scamper through an uncanny valley of living books was on another level of disturbing.
This uniquely 90s nugget of media is about a boy named Richard who is terrified of absolutely everything until he has to go on an adventure to escape from a library that has somehow been turned into a fantasy realm full of monsters and dragons and pirates and such. Helping him along the way are three anthropomorphized living books with creepy faces and weird little arms and legs. Are you not shaking in your boots yet? Come on.
Don’t get me wrong, in a sense I quite like The Pagemaster. I distinctly remember watching it several times as a child, even though it creeped me out, and it has a good underlying message: read books, be confident, and don’t be afraid to take risks sometimes. That being said, the grim and slightly grotesque animation really enhances the dark psychic energy of a movie whose storyline isn’t really that frightening in theory. It starts off in live action, but when Richard enters the local library to get out of a thunderstorm he slips in a puddle and hits his head. When he comes to, everything begins to turn animated, and books start to literally come alive, manifesting either as characters, creatures, and landscapes, or awful little beasties that look like books but can talk and hobble around and blink and stuff.
These little terrors help Richard along his journey to get past the dangers of the library-turned-adventure and back home, and in return he fulfills their desperate ambition of being checked out of the library and taken home.
The implications of that goal are a little weird, to be honest, because it leads the viewer to believe that if you are a book, the library is constantly a land of terror, where you might get burned to death by a dragon or ripped to shreds by Mr. Hyde at any time, and being checked out is only a brief reprieve from the madness. After all, this is not a bookstore, it’s not as though the books are being adopted and taken to loving homes forever. All they keep saying (frequently) is that they need to “get out of here” and the fact that they actually become friends with the boy who temporarily takes them home is more of a convenient bonus.
Besides the creepy books, the animation often uses dark, clouded backgrounds and exaggerates the features on all the humans in unsettling ways, especially the pirates in the “adventure” section. They all have jagged, pointy teeth, enormous mouths, and strangely gangly limbs. Visually, the whole movie is a lot to handle when you’re six, which may be part of why it was not much of a standout in its time. Like many such movies, its main appeal lies in the nostalgia factor, and when re-watching it for old time’s sake it doesn’t quite hold up as well. I noticed only on the re-watch, for example, that there is only one female character throughout, and she—being somehow both a fairy and a book with a face—only just barely counts. Richard’s mother appears at the very beginning and very end, but in each case she has only one or two lines, and Richard’s primary relationship is with his father.
Interestingly, a number of studies suggest that boys read for pleasure significantly less than girls and that boys have worse reading comprehension overall, so making a movie about the power of reading that stars a young boy is probably a benefit to boys on the whole. Literate and imaginative boys are a great benefit to everyone, but I somehow doubt that the writers of The Pagemaster consciously decided to make the main character a boy because they realized that boys needed encouragement to read more than girls. I believe that a large part of that gender gap in reading stems from the fact that girls are able to connect with protagonists of any gender, while boys are socially discouraged from reading “girl books” and are therefore trained out of their ability to identify with female characters. For that reason, it’s incredibly important to include prominent female characters in media directed at boys, to encourage them to form emotional connections to female characters from an early age. This will not only make them more likely to identify emotionally with women in real life, it will also expand the range of books that they are interested in to include anything with a female protagonist.
In that regard, The Pagemaster isn’t especially strategic in its quest to encourage children to read more. They’ve chosen to target a viewership that doesn’t read very much as it is, and they’ve given that viewership a scary movie that doesn’t work very hard to expand their reading horizons. It’s not a bad choice for the occasional wallow in the nostalgia pit, but if I had ever planned to have children, The Pagemaster isn’t a film that I would be dead set on introducing them to.