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Arthur and the Invisibles

Derivative, Unimaginative, and Ultimately Unengaging

Written and directed by Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, The Professional) from an idea by Céline Garcia and children's books written by Besson, Arthur and the Invisibles ("Arthur et les Minimoys"), the promised first in a live-action/computer animated fantasy trilogy penned and directed by Besson, turns out to be exactly what you'd expect from a filmmaker well known for his lack of subtlety and unoriginality. Besson, of course, hopes to duplicate Pixar Animation Studios' commercial success (and let's not forget all the merchandising dollars or euros that comes with a healthy box office). Arthur and the Invisibles’ unoriginality, though, is the least of its egregious faults.

Arthur (Freddie Highmore) lives alone with his grandmother (Mia Farrow) on a slightly rundown, country farm in the American Midwest, circa 1960. Arthur’s parents (Doug Rand, Penny Balfour) work in the nearby city, but they can barely make ends meet. Likewise his grandmother, since the disappearance of Arthur’s grandfather Archibald (Ron Crawford), has fallen on hard times and is facing foreclosure on the farm in several days time to an unscrupulous real estate developer, Davido (Adam LeFevre). Like his grandfather, though, Arthur is a dreamer. He reads about Archibald’s wild adventures in a scrapbook. The scrapbook mentions African warriors, priceless rubies, and miniature elf-like creatures, the Minimoys. Arthur sets out to find the hidden treasure.

With the aid of his grandfather’s magical telescope, Arthur contacts Bétamèche (Jimmy Fallon), an adolescent Minimoy, but the telescope has other powers: it instantly shrinks down Arthur to Minimoy size. Bétamèche takes Arthur to his father, the king of the Minimoys (Robert DeNiro). The Minimoys, though, have their own problems. Maltazard (David Bowie) and his son, Darkos (Jason Bateman), have designs, none of them good, on the peaceful Minimoy kingdom. To find the treasure and save the Minimoys from Maltazard's machinations, Arthur is paired up with Bétamèche's older sister, Selenia (Madonna). Arthur, Selenia, and Bétamèche set out for Maltazard’s kingdom to stop him from flooding the Minimoy city. Back in the real world, Arthur’s disappearance causes his grandmother and his visiting parents to go into panic mode just as Davido appears with an eviction notice.

Trying to duplicate the success of Pixar Studios (Cars, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo) or DreamWorks Animation (Over the Hedge, Shrek I and II, Shark Tale) is, even with A-level source material, a daunting proposition. Besson figured that coming up with an original storyline didn't matter, or even if it did, it was secondary to the animation. It's not, as Pixar has proven repeatedly. You need both to succeed. Borrowing shamelessly and lazily from the King Arthur legend (an Excalibur-like sword is involved), Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, The Ant Bully and the Matrix trilogy (for the tired action scenes) plus every other generic fantasy/quest narrative isn't going to win Besson or his animators points, just pity. Claiming that Arthur and the Invisibles was intended exclusively for kids, presumably to avoid criticism, doesn't work either (see Pixar's output for counter-examples).

Animation wise, some of the character designs for the Minimoys are sub-video game quality (Arthur and Bétamèche), while others, like the long-fingered, flat-faced Maltazard, show signs that Besson's animators aren't completely uncreative. Too bad, though, that Maltazard will remind moviegoers of Harry Potter's nemesis, Voldemort, from the Harry Potter book and film franchises. He's even referred to as "M" by the easily frightened Minimoys.

Directing has always been secondary for Besson and it shows (70 plus producing credits and more than 20 screenplays). Since The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, Besson has mostly focused exclusively on writing and producing mainstream, action-oriented films, including two films for Jet Li (Unleashed, Kiss of the Dragon and two for Jason Statham The Transporter I and II), so it's surprising he would try his hand at a computer animated/fantasy film for children. Besson has publicly stated that Arthur and the Invisibles would be his last directing effort, but positive box office returns in Europe have already made sequels likely. Whether stateside moviegoers should react positively to Arthur and the Invisibles is another matter. From the plodding, uninspired results onscreen, they shouldn’t.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars