The film was written for the screen by David Casci, based on a six-page pitch by writer Charles Pogue entitled "Library Days," presented to Casci by producer David Kirschner. The film was directed by Joe Johnston (live action) and Pixote Hunt and Glenn Chaika (animation), and produced by David Kirschner and Paul Gertz.
Pessimistic 10-year-old Richard Tyler lives life based on statistics and fears everything. His exasperated parents have tried multiple ways to build up the courage of their son, but to little success. Richard is sent to buy a bag of nails for building a treehouse. However, Richard gets caught in a harsh thunderstorm and takes shelter in a library. He meets Mr. Dewey, an eccentric librarian who insists that he is in need of a special book and gives him a library card, despite Richard explaining he is only sheltering from the storm. Searching for a phone, Richard finds a large rotunda painted with many famous literary characters. He slips on water dripping from his coat and falls over, knocking himself out. Richard awakens to find the rotunda art melting, which washes over him and the library, turning them into illustrations.
He is met by the Pagemaster, the mythical Keeper of Books and Guardian of the Written Word. Richard asks for directions to the exit so the Pagemaster sends him through the fiction section toward the green neon exit sign. Along the way, Richard befriends three anthropomorphic books: Adventure, a swashbuckling pirate-like book; Fantasy, a sassy but caring fairy tale book; and Horror, a fearful "Hunchbook" with a misshapen spine. The three agree to help Richard if he checks them out using his new library card. Together, the quartet encounters classic-fictional characters. They meet Dr. Jekyll who turns into Mr. Hyde, driving them to the open waters of the Land of Adventure. However, the group is separated after Moby-Dick attacks, following the whale's battle with Captain Ahab. Richard and Adventure are picked up by the Hispaniola, captained by Long John Silver. The pirates go to Treasure Island, but find no treasure except for one gold coin, nearly causing a mutiny. Fantasy and Horror return and defeat the pirates. Silver attempts to convince Richard to leave with him, but surrenders when Richard threatens him with a sword.
In the fantasy section, Richard sees the exit sign on the top of a mountain. However, Adventure's bumbling awakens a dormant dragon. Richard tries to fight the dragon with a sword and shield, but the dragon swallows him. Richard finds books in the dragon's stomach and uses a beanstalk from Jack and the Beanstalk to escape through the dragon's mouth. He and the books climb the beanstalk to reach the exit. They enter a large dark room where the Pagemaster awaits them. Richard accuses the Pagemaster of causing the horrors that he suffered, but the Pagemaster reveals the journey was intended to make Richard face his fears. Dr. Jekyll, Captain Ahab, Long John Silver, and the dragon reappear in a magical twister and congratulate him. The Pagemaster then swoops Richard and the books into the twister, sending them back to the real world.
Richard awakens, finding Adventure, Fantasy, and Horror lying next to him as real books. Mr. Dewey finds him, and, even though the library policy only allows a person to check out two books at time, lets him check out all three books "just this once". Richard returns home a braver child, sleeping in his new treehouse with his books.
- Macaulay Culkin as Richard Tyler: A young 10-year-old boy who seems to have a fear of everything and runs his life based on safety statistics. Culkin is the only actor in the film to portray his character in both live-action and animation.
- Christopher Lloyd as Mr. Dewey: The unconventional librarian and caretaker of a seemingly abandoned library.
- Ed Begley Jr. and Mel Harris as Alan and Claire Tyler: Richard's supportive parents. Alan considers himself a bad father due to his continuous failed attempts to help Richard get over his fears.
- Christopher Lloyd as the Pagemaster: the Keeper of the Books and Guardian of the Written Word. He is implied to be Mr. Dewey's alternate form.
- Patrick Stewart as Adventure: A swashbuckling gold adventure fiction book resembling a stereotypical pirate.
- Whoopi Goldberg as Fantasy: A fairy-styled lavender fairy tale book. She can be opprobrious, aggressive, and hotheaded.
- Frank Welker as Horror: A turquoise horror fiction book. Despite his name, he is quite the opposite of horrific.
- Frank Welker also provides the sound effects of the dragon, Moby Dick, and the other creatures.
- Leonard Nimoy as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: The fictional scientist who turned into the horrific monster.
- George Hearn as Captain Ahab: An almost psychotic whale hunter who is out to kill the white whale Moby-Dick.
- Jim Cummings as Long John Silver: The ruthless usurper Captain of the Hispaniola.
- Phil Hartman as Tom Morgan: A slender and violent pirate on the Hispaniola.
- Ed Gilbert as George Merry: An obese and ugly pirate on the Hispaniola.
- B.J. Ward as The Queen of Hearts: The tyrannical ruler of Wonderland who appears in the Alice in Wonderland book in the dragon's stomach.
The Pirates of the Hispaniola are voiced by Richard Erdman, Fernando Escandon, Dorian Harewood, and Robert Picardo.
The Pagemaster took three years to produce; the animation in the film was produced by Turner Feature Animation, headed by David Kirschner and recently spun off from Hanna-Barbera. The crew included animators who were veterans of productions such as An American Tail (1986) (also produced by David Kirschner and composed by James Horner), The Land Before Time (1988) and Aladdin (1992). This was one of the first films to feature live-action, traditional animation, and CGI animation all together. One scene involving a computer-generated dragon made from paint was used, a challenge for the filmmakers. All of the fictional works featured in the film were created and first published before January 1, 1923, making them a part of the public domain in most countries. The theme songs to the movie are "Dream Away", sung by Babyface and Lisa Stansfield, and "Whatever You Imagine", sung by Wendy Moten.
Many of the cast members have had roles in the Star Trek franchise: Patrick Stewart played Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Whoopi Goldberg played Guinan, Leonard Nimoy played Mr. Spock, Christopher Lloyd played Kruge in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Ed Begley Jr. played Henry Starling in a two-part episode of Star Trek: Voyager, George Hearn played Dr. Berel in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and B.J. Ward played numerous characters in Star Trek computer games, as did Jim Cummings. Composer James Horner was also the composer for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Frank Welker voiced Spock's screams in Star Trek III and the alien creature in the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Nothing Human". Robert Picardo played The Doctor on Star Trek: Voyager.
Additionally, both Nimoy and Welker voiced the character Galvatron in Transformers (with Nimoy voicing him in the 1986 film, and Welker voicing him in the television series and again in Transformers: Age of Extinction and Transformers: The Last Knight).
Promotional advertisements for this film used the theme from the 1984 film, The Last Starfighter.
Casci's original screenplay included a story arc for the protagonist, Richard Tyler (played by Macaulay Culkin), who begins the tale as a boy who hates reading, but by the end of the film, learns to love reading. The revised screenplay by Contreras and Kirschner omitted the reading-themed story arc, instead emphasizing the boy's journey from cowardice to courage.
According to the film's animation crew, the film went overbudget during animation production due to mismanagement and changes to the narrative. The 2001 book Producing Animation by Catherine Winderand Zahra Dowlatbadi (Johnston's assistant on The Pagemaster) recommends against making story changes during the animation process.
Fantasy and Long John Silver are voiced by Goldberg and Cummings. The two of them (along with Cheech Marin) voiced the three troublesome hyenas in The Lion King, another animated film released the same year.
Animation production began in August 1992, and live-action scenes were filmed from September 21 to October 15, 1992. After two years in the making, the film was completed and wrapped in the summer of 1994. According to the copyright holder, it was believed to be made in 1993 (although the film was just released a year later).
The screenwriting credits for this film were the subject of a protracted legal arbitration with the Writers Guild of America (WGA) when its producer, David Kirschner, attempted to claim sole authorship of the screenplay and original story, with no credit for its original screenwriter, David Casci. Typically, proposed credits are submitted to the WGA for approval well in advance of the release of a movie or the publishing of posters or novelizations on which writing credits appear. In the case of The Pagemaster, the producers attempted to claim that, as the film was now largely animated, the WGA did not have jurisdiction to determine credits. Casci had written the screenplay under a WGA contract, as well as previous live-action versions for Disney Television dating back to 1985, also written under WGA contract. These facts positioned the WGA to get involved, testing their tenuous authority over a feature film with animated elements.
After a lengthy investigation and interviews with those intimately familiar with the genesis of the Pagemaster project, including three persons within Kirschner's own office, the WGA credit arbitration process determined that David Casci was, in fact, the primary writer, and that Kirschner did not provide a sufficient creative contribution to the writing process to warrant any screenwriting credit. Upon receiving this determination by the WGA, Fox threatened to pull out of arbitration and release the film without WGA-approved credits, positioning the WGA to be forced to file an injunction blocking the film's heavily promoted Christmas season release.
Ultimately, a settlement was reached, and Fox released the film with both Kirschner and Casci receiving story and screenplay credit, with a third writer, Ernie Contreras, also receiving screenplay credit.
At the time, this case was the most expensive and extensive investigation of its type undertaken by the WGA on behalf of one of its members.
Extended and deleted scenes
The Pagemaster is presented in an extended cut version. During the production, some original scenes were removed, both live-action and animation. The deleted scenes and characters can be still seen during the making of the film, trailers and TV spots, SkyBox International trading cards, books and other related products. They can be also seen during the sneak peek on the 1993 VHS release of Once Upon a Forest, the 1994 VHS release of Rookie of the Year, and in the promotional trailer of the VHS release of the film on the promotional demo/screener VHS copy in 1995.
Reception and release
The film was a production by Turner Pictures. 20th Century Fox handled U.S. distribution, while Turner Pictures Worldwide handled International distribution. Turner Broadcasting System handles the broadcasting rights of the film to be aired on their variety of television networks (including Cartoon Network). Warner Bros. now handles International and television distribution to the film as a result of the Turner/Time Warner merger on October 10, 1996. As of March 20, 2019, the domestic home media rights to The Pagemaster are now owned by Disney through 20th Century Fox, which had obtained the film's theatrical and home media rights domestically.
The film grossed $13,670,688 in theaters, on a $27 million budget. The Pagemaster earned a Razzie Award nomination for Macaulay Culkin as Worst Actor for his performance in the movie (also for Getting Even with Dad and Richie Rich) but lost the award to Kevin Costner for Wyatt Earp.
The film received a 17% score on Rotten Tomatoes based on 18 reviews.Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times criticized the way the film's message came across, calling it a "sad and dreary film," adding that its message seemed to be that "books can be almost as much fun as TV cartoons and video arcade games." Brian Lowry of Variety said that the film's principal appeal for adults would be its abbreviated running time, and that it did not do enough with its famous fictional characters, noting "A more inspired moment has Richard using a book, Jack and the Beanstalk, to escape from the belly of a dragon. Unfortunately, such moments are few and far between." Rita Kempley of The Washington Post, however, gave the film a positive review, calling it a "splendidly original children's fantasy about the world of books." James Berardinelli of ReelViews gave another positive review, calling it a "clever, often engaging, and always fast-paced motion picture" that "uses the visual medium to encourage its viewers to reach out with their imagination."
The Pagemaster was first released on VHS and LaserDisc on April 4, 1995. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment released the film on DVD and Blu-ray on August 6, 2013.
Contrary to any claims, the screenplay and film are not based on any book. David Casci's screenplay preceded all novelizations and illustrated books by several years.
A number of books based on the film exist, including an illustrated book attributed to David Kirschner and Ernie Contreras, illustrated by Jerry Tiritilli, which contained large passages from the Casci screenplay without giving Casci writing credit. The film was well into production by the time this book was introduced in the 1993 F. A. O. Schwarz Christmas Catalog. Other properties based on the film include a novelization of the film, children's story books, pop-up books and other film ancillaries such as toys and games.