If 4- and 5-year-olds were the only critics that mattered, Luc Besson's (The Fifth Element, Le Femme Nikita) first foray into CG animated kiddie fare would be an unqualified success. Still $83 million is a lot of scratch to spend on a rather thin slice of the moviegoing audience.
With Arthur and the Invisibles (formerly titled Arthur and the Minimoys), Besson has all Pixar's blockbuster elements in place: A-list celebrity voice work, eye-catching animation, a fantastical adventure and ambitious action sequences. But little of the film gels.
The script a hodgepodge of classic children's tales ranging from The Borrowers to King Arthur to The Smurfs is simultaneously complicated and simple-minded, overstuffed with exposition and incidental subplots that undermine its more ambitious conceits. Arthur (Freddie Highmore) has been left to live with his grandmother (Mia Farrow) while his parents struggle to find work in the big city. When a greedy land developer sets his sights on the family farm, Arthur vows to find his missing grandfather's hidden treasure. Stumbling across conveniently placed clues, he discovers the miniature land of the Minimoys, ant-sized animated elves who may be able to help him. Teamed with Princess Selenia (Madonna) and her eager-beaver brother (Jimmy Fallon), Arthur sets out to rescue his granddad and save the King (Robert De Niro) from the sinister plans of the evil Maltazard (David Bowie).
An ambitious mix of live-action setup and animated microverse, Arthur boasts an impressive and intoxicating visual style. The Minimoy world is rich in textures and fabulously detailed. If Besson's constantly moving camera would settle for a moment we might actually get to drink in the beauty. He directs Arthur much like his adrenaline-fueled action flicks, forgetting the true mission of any children's film is to instill a sense of wonder and inspiration.
Unfortunately, we're never allowed to get our bearings or connect with the characters as the story frantically barrels from one chaotic scene to the next. Rumor has it that Besson's original cut of the film was 15-20 minutes longer but producer Harvey Weinstein insisted snips were in order. As a result, chunks of backstory are furiously shoveled at us and the editing is beyond breathless. Whenever the action dies down, a narrator with impeccable diction pops in to move things along.
The film's tone is similarly disjointed. Mostly simple-sweet, anachronistic jokes pop with surprising frequency the film is set in 1960, but a Minimoy nightclub features a giant-sized record-player spinning the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive" and poorly timed one-liners aimed at adults land with a thud. The overly strident soundtrack suggests we take Arthur's quest seriously but campy performances and tongue-in-cheek references indicate the story is a lark.
Besson's biggest misstep, however, is confusing A-list thespians for accomplished voiceover actors. De Niro is bland, Fallon is tiresome, Anthony Andrews puts in time as another CG version of Stepin Fetchit, and Madonna is, well, Madonna (only more petulant). Leave it to David Bowie and, oddly enough, Jason Bateman as his thuggish son, to show the rest of the cast how to deliver the goods while keeping their dignity intact. Along with 14-year-old Highmore, they're the only ones who tackle their roles with any style or relish.
Where Arthur succeeds is in its inventive and energetic action sequences. An attack by marauding mosquito riders, a trip down the river in a plastic straw and a toy Ferrari's escape through a flooding sewer pipe allow Besson to impress us with his trademark visual pyrotechnics. Unfortunately, aside from the tots in the audience, the rest of the movie will have viewers checking their watches and pining for the adrenaline-fueled gunplay and homoerotic snap-kicks of The Transporter.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.