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Arthur and the Invisibles
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Luc Who's Back"
4 stars

For many critics–and quite possibly many families as well–the idea of sitting through yet another animated feature film may sound like an unendurable prospect these days. After all, there has been such a glut of animated product in the last couple of years–something like 16 such films in 2006 alone–that even the most devoted fan of such things may be feeling too sated to work up much enthusiasm to make it through yet another spectacle in which famous actors lend their voices to anthropomorphic woodland creatures or automobiles or whatever. As a result, there s the very real possibility that the latest such entry in the animation sweepstakes, “Arthur and the Invisibles,” may wind up getting ignored by people willing to dismiss it out of hand as just being more of the same. If this were to happen, it would be kind of a shame because while the film itself may be far from perfect, it does contain one thing that most of its animated brethren lack–the fingerprints of a distinctive filmmaker in writer-director Luc Besson, the creator of such cult favorites as “The Fifth Element” and “Leon”–and it is this individual vision that gives it the kind of personal touch that allows it to stand out from the crowd.

As the film opens (in live-action), Arthur (Freddie Highmore) is a lonely little boy who has been left on an isolated farmhouse in the care of his loyal and loving grandmother (Mia Farrow), who fills his head with stories about his grandfather, who mysteriously went missing three years earlier, and the magical lands and people that he supposedly encountered over the years including the Minimoys, a race of extremely tiny, elf-like creatures who live just underneath the garden out back. Alas, evil bankers are ready to foreclose on the farm and put Arthur and his grandmother out on the street unless she can come up with a large sum of money in 48 hours. To stop this, Arthur uncovers a series of codes left by his grandfather that will allow him to journey to the land of the Minimoys and recover a cache of rubies that have been hidden there.

Once he arrives (and the film switches to animation), Arthur discovers that the rubies are in the possession of the fearsome Maltazard (David Bowie), a former Minimoy who has turned against them in revenge for long-ago hurts that he suffered. When feisty Princess Selenia (Madonna), the daughter of the aging and benevolent King (Robert De Niro) decides to set off on a journey to stop Maltazard once and for all, Arthur volunteers to come along as well and the two are joined by Selenia’s silly younger brother, Betameche (Jimmy Fallon). Along the way, the three undergo many perilous adventures and encounter a variety of strange creatures while trying to simultaneously prevent Maltazard’s diabolical plot to destroy the Minimoy world once and for all–a plot that Arthur himself has accidentally set into motion–and discover the rubies in order save Arthur’s world back home in the ta-dah! nick of time.

On the surface, the idea of Luc Besson, the man whose past efforts at reconciling the seemingly incompatible genres of elaborate American action extravaganzas (the kind best represented by Spielberg and his various acolytes) and glossy French auteurist exercises (such as the various creations of Jean-Jacques Beineix and Leos Carax) have seen him revered and reviled in equal measure, doing an animated children’s film may sound as either the daftest move in a career filled with daft moves or a craven effort to come up with his own money-spinning franchise in the manner of Harry Potter or “The Chronicles of Narnia.” However, those who have studied Besson’s work in depth over the years will be surprised to discover that instead of being just a soulless and anonymous piece of product, “Arthur and the Invisibles” is a surprisingly personal work and the change in genre allows him to deploy his obsessions in new and intriguing ways. Nearly all of Besson’s films involve children–either literally (such as Natalie Portman in “Leon” or Milla Jovovich as the newborn savior in “The Fifth Element” or Joan of Arc in “The Messenger”) or metaphorically (Anne Parillaud’s killer waif in “La Femme Nikita,” Jean Reno’s milk-drinking hitman in “Leon” or the Bruce Willis character in “The Fifth Element” who is still nagged around-the-clock by his mother)–who find themselves charged with saving the world in one way or another as their passage into maturity and who manage to save both the day and themselves thanks to their essential purity and innocence in the face of unspeakable evil, usually represented by the likes of Gary Oldman. In the context of a live-action spectacular with flesh-and-blood people, such quaint notions can come across as facile and naive but within the context of an animated film, where those notions don’t automatically seems so out of place, the material plays surprisingly well.

Another trademark of Besson’s filmmaking approach that benefits from the new context is his goofball sense of humor. In nearly all of his movies, there is at least one scene that is so weird and silly to behold–I’m thinking of the extended bit in “The Fifth Element” where super-villain Gary Oldman is almost fatally felled by a single cherry pit–that the average viewer either embraces it wholeheartedly or violently rejects it to such a degree that it throws the entire film out of whack for them. Within the framework of an actual cartoon, however, such cheerfully cartoonish moments seem more at home and less distracting than they might have in a live-action exercise. In fact, one of these off-beat and seemingly throwaway bits turned out to be my favorite thing in the entire film–an extended detour that our heroes take into an underground nightclub that transforms from a dance scene into a surreal battle with Maltazard’s dopey thugs (at one point, the combatants are literally fighting on the soundtrack to the scene) in a manner that may remind some of the eye-popping USO riot in Steven Spielberg’s vastly underrated “1941," perhaps the Spielberg work that is closest in spirit to Besson in its mixture of elaborate action and childlike silliness.

Visually, the look of the film is stunning throughout as Besson and his army of animators do a highly impressive job of delivering new worlds as dense and detailed as the one seen in “The Fifth Element” as well as new looks at our world from the Minimoy point-of-view. However, Besson doesn’t let animation’s ability to let a filmmaker do whatever comes to mind go to his head–his action sequences are as extravagant as ever while still maintaining a respect for spatial geography that has become an increasingly rare commodity in the AVID-happy world of contemporary filmmaking. The designs of the various creatures are relatively impressive as well–Malthazar is appropriately creepy and dissolute while Princess Selenia has a surprisingly slick, sleek and sexy look that makes her the ultimate expression of the slim-hipped ass-kicker that is clearly Besson’s feminine ideal.

However, the aspect of “Arthur and the Invisibles” that sticks out the most is the same one that has come to dominate all of his previous work–the palpable sense of giddy joy that he obviously feels towards the art of filmmaking that is evident in every frame–if the world of film really is the greatest electric train set a kid ever had, as Orson Welles once said, then Besson is the ultimate embodiment of someone who found that train set under his Christmas tree and never grew tired of it. You know how kids will drag out their toys and use them to make up elaborately detailed stories, usually stitching together the products of their own imaginations with recreations of favorite moments that they have seen on the big-screen, with such straight-faced excitement and enthusiasm that you wind up having a good time yourself just from watching them? Although his toys may be more expensive and technologically advanced than those of the average youth, Besson is that kid at heart and you can feel his guileless enthusiasm and sense of wonder in every scene. Sure, the story cribs elements from any number of sources–there are nods to “Star Wars,” “The Borrowers,” “Antz,” “The Matrix,” the legend of King Arthur, the various works of Tolkien and Roald Dahl and even “Pulp Fiction, just to name a few–but you don’t get the sense that Besson has included these elements in a cynical ploy to subliminally win viewers over by reminding them of past films that they may have enjoyed. Instead, it feels as if he has put them in simply because he loved seeing those moments and he wants to take a crack at them himself as an act of pure cineaste devotion of the kind that Godard and Tarantino are always being hailed for.

“Arthur and the Minimoys” is not a perfect film by any means. Some of the opening live-action scenes are too cartoonish for their own good and Mia Farrow doesn’t look entirely comfortable doing some of the slapstick that she is required to partake in. Some plot details are thrown into the mix without any real explanation and then just a quickly abandoned–the most egregious example being the band of African tribesmen who appear out of nowhere to aid Arthur in his journey to the land of the Minimoys in a head-scratching moment for the ages. And while most of them have clearly been hired to bolster the film’s chances in the American marketplace, most of the marquee actors supplying voices for the English-language track heard here (besides those mentioned earlier, Harvey Keitel, Chazz Palminteri, Jason Bateman, Snoop Dogg, Anthony Anderson and Emilio Estevez also turn up) fail to make any real impression on the proceedings. (That said, David Bowie is absolutely perfect as Maltazard–he delivers his lines in such an arrestingly musical manner that it almost makes you wish that Besson gone all out and done the film as a musical–and Madonna adds an amusingly kinky edge to the proceedings as the Minimoy who becomes the instant crush of the much-younger Arthur, a sly inversion of the romantic dynamics at the center of “Leon” and “The Fifth Element.”) While I will acknowledge these flaws, I must also admit that the rest of the proceedings are so enjoyable that such bumps and missteps can be easily dismissed by all but the most churlish of viewers. The one misstep that I can’t forgive is the title change from the original “Arthur and the Minimoys” to the bland and utterly meaningless “Arthur and the Invisibles,” an odd moniker for a film that features no invisible people to speak of.

Looking over what I have written, I see that I have analyzed “Arthur and the Invisibles” in a manner that praises it for its auteurist underpinnings without quite getting around to suggesting whether or not kids and families will enjoy it as well. To tell you the truth, I’m not really sure because the sheer strangeness of the film and its unwillingness to conform to the rules of contemporary animated cinema may prove too much for the kind of audience that made such artistically bankrupt endeavors as “Ice Age 2" and “Barnyard” into significant hits. However, fans of oddball cinema, especially those already partial to Besson, are likely to spark to its weirdly appealing charms in the same way that they did to such cult favorites as “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “The Dark Crystal” and “Mirrormask.” In fact, this could be the rare family-oriented film that plays better as a midnight show than as a matinee.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15437&reviewer=389
originally posted: 01/12/07 00:32:29
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User Comments

8/16/07 Javier Delgado In the US, the love story and Selenias was edited out. Try to see the full version. 5 stars
8/06/07 javier delgado Excelent, but you must see the full film, not the censored US edition. 5 stars
4/24/07 Tiffany Losco awesome, I like the special effects the cartoon looked real. 4 stars
1/08/07 doink not as bad as the review above, but not very good either. my 5 yr old liked it. 2 stars
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  29-Dec-2006 (PG)
  DVD: 15-May-2007



[trailer] Trailer

Directed by
  Luc Besson

Written by
  Luc Besson

  Mia Farrow
  Freddie Highmore
  David Bowie
  Snoop Dogg

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