If Timothy Leary were alive and making animated films, he might have come up with something like Arthur and the Invisibles. While ostensibly a family film, I doubt children will like it very much. Recreational drug users and fans of the bizarre may find it slightly more interesting. (For the record, I am the latter and not the former.) The movie was directed and co-written by Luc Besson, the French filmmaker known for adult fare like La Femme Nikita and The Fifth Element. Besson has allegedly stated in the press that he knew nothing about animation before starting work on Arthur. I guess you could look at that both an asset and a liability.
The film begins live action-style, as we meet young Arthur (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Freddie Highmore), who lives in an old farmhouse with his grandmother (Mia Farrow) while Mom and Dad are out cavorting. Arthur’s grandfather has gone missing many a moon ago, and a nasty real estate developer (is there any other kind in movies?) is about to seize control of the house. Supposedly, grandpa hid a small cache of gems somewhere on the premises; if Arthur can find them within two days, he can pay off the developer and save the family home.
Remembering his grandfather’s old tale about a race of microscopic creatures called “Minimoys,” Arthur begins looking for clues amongst the man’s possessions. Turns out that there really are such creatures and, even better, there’s a way for Arthur to shrink himself down to their size. By allowing them to guide him beneath the yard, he stands a better chance of locating the hidden treasure. Once he is shrunk, the movie switches over to computer animation.
How does one go about describing the Minimoys? Combine those weird troll dolls that used to be all the rage with the characters in a “Final Fantasy” video game, then throw in a pinch of Mr. Spock and you begin to get the idea. (But not really.) Robert De Niro provides the voice of the King, who sends his children, Princess Selenia (voiced by Madonna) and Betameche (Jimmy Fallon), to accompany Arthur on his quest. Along the way, they encounter even more weird creatures, including Minimoy nightclub king Max (Snoop Dogg) and the evil Maltazard (David Bowie), who wants the gems for himself. Before their journey is over, Arthur and his new friends have battled bad guys with tomatoes, navigated a drinking straw through an irrigation system, and faced down a giant insect. Well, he’s giant to them at least.
Arthur and the Invisibles has a story so psychedelic that each movie ticket purchased should also include a black light poster and some incense. Kids weaned on the likes of Pixar and Shrek won’t know what to make of it. To be fair, I think it’s great that the film took some chances and did things different visually. This does not look like any other animated film you’ve seen. I found the whole design fun to watch. The characters look strange and cool, and the environments are interesting to take in. It won’t be to every taste, but I had a great time just physically looking at the movie.
That said, I have three criticisms of Arthur and the Invisibles. The first is significant, but not fatal. The other two are fatal, yet seemingly insignificant. Let me start with the one that’s significant. The live action opening is full of promise – the promise of seeing a magical fantasy that is filled with wonder. It’s easy to get hooked as Arthur uncovers his grandfather’s clues and discovers that the magical tale of the Minimoys is true. But once he shrinks down, the story doesn’t have anywhere solid to go. Arthur and his pals run underground in search of the treasure, but nothing much of significance happens. The plot has to manufacture things for them to do, and most of those things feel…well, manufactured. In other words, strong set-up, weak pay-off. Like I said, it’s a significant flaw, but one the movie could conceivably have been forgiven for considering the strength of its physical look.
The same can’t be said of the other two flaws which, on the surface, don’t sound like such a big deal but nevertheless make watching Arthur and the Invisibles more unpleasant than it ought to be. It takes about three seconds to realize that the Minimoys’ words are not synched up to the movement of their lips. It’s really noticeable, like watching a badly dubbed kung fu movie. The reason for this is that Besson is a French filmmaker who animated the scenes in French, with French actors. American actors have dubbed English words over lips that are, technically, speaking another language. The result is distracting.
This ties in directly with the third flaw. I don’t speak French, but it appears that it takes fewer words to say things in French than it does in English. Consequently, the actors have to talk really fast to get all their dialogue in while the characters’ lips are still moving. This necessity doesn’t allow the cast time to put much emotion into what they’re saying; they are simply trying to squeeze too many words into too little time. At some points, I couldn’t even tell what was being said, and other points, the substance of any given sentence was rendered mute by the haste with which it was delivered. Have you ever been around a preteen girl who talks a mile a minute, almost as if on fast-forward? Well, imagine a movie where everyone talks like that. It took me completely out of the story more than once.
Despite being visually interesting and having some solid moments of humor and fantasy, those flaws make Arthur and the Invisibles a bit of a chore to sit through. Anyone simply wanting to trip on some freaky visuals won’t be completely disappointed. Parents trying to take their children to an animated movie, however, are likely to hear incessant cries of “I want Happy Feet!
( 1/2 out of four)
Arthur and the Invisibles is rated PG for fantasy action and brief suggestive material. The running time is 1 hour and 34 minutes.
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