Luc Besson's Arthur And The Invisibles should have stayed that way - invisible. Critic Noel Vera can't quite swallow what's dished up.

Luc Besson's latest, "Arthur and the Invisibles" (2006) is roughly the equivalent of a McDonald's hamburger--not poisonous, per se, but not exactly food either.

I don't know where the picture goes wrong--or rather, I don't know how on earth the filmmakers could ever imagine that this mishmash of fantasy, live-action and CGI animation would ever work out right.

There's some wit involving scale (a toy car turns into an escape vehicle, a construct made out of plastic straws becomes material for building some kind of Doomsday device) but said moments whiz by too quickly, and you find yourself forced to turn your attention back to the rather witless story, which combines two hoary old clichés--the farm about to be repossessed by a villainous banker, the youth that steps through glass to enter another world (in Arthur's case (Freddie Highmore, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "Finding Neverland"), he's sucked down a telescope).

Along the way Arthur evades the misguided attempts of his grandmother (Mia Farrow, still likeable, still luminous) to take care of him, pulls a sword out of a (what else?) stone, falls in love with a princess that has lived for a thousand years (voice by Madonna, who sounds too old for the part), and eventually battles an evil wizard (David Bowie, who slinks away with the picture). Does Arthur win the day, get the girl, find the rubies he needs to save the farm from that darn banker? Is Besson a hack?


I don't think it's the lack of originality that sinks the project--Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away," the single finest animated feature made recently, borrows heavily from the books of Charles Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Caroll), while some of the best elements in Pixar's pictures are borrowed, in turn, directly from Miyazaki--but the disparate elements here, unlike in Miyazaki, never fuse into the smooth flow of a reasonably whole, if not actually coherent, narrative.

Highmore's Arthur is unflappable from beginning to end; Highmore (who was moving and emphatic in his previous roles) seems curiously colorless here--as if Besson had told him to "mek like a hero; you know, ze dull kind." Madonna puts a little sass into her characterization of Princess Selenia, but when asked to act as if she were in love with him she sounds repulsively pedophilic (does Arthur's grandmother know where he's been spending his time? And with whom?), not to mention unconvincing (you don't fall in love with Madonna, you--but the correct term's unprintable).

Jimmy Fallon as the standard-issue comic sidekick is enjoyable enough, though if pressed for details I can't for the life of me tell you exactly what I enjoyed. Only David Bowie seems at all memorable, with his Dark Lord demeanor (he sounds sexier than Darth Vader, wittier than Lord Voldemort, considerably more charismatic than Sauron).

Jonathan Rosenbaum, who liked the movie well enough, mentions that Harvey Weinstein cut 18 minutes from the original French release; I can't find any further confirmation of this but I certainly can believe it, watching the movie.

Much of the opening sequence is told in a hurried voiceover narration; Masai warriors pop out of nowhere--yes, I know they're meant to appear like that, but they're hurried through so quickly the incongruence of African warriors in a farm never has much of an impact; Arthur, pondering his grandfather's words, realizes how a message was hidden and deciphers them accordingly but the scene is so perfunctorily it barely makes an impression.


A sense of wonder and enchantment takes time to build, preferably from the solid rock base of a reasonably realistic world (that's why "Spirited Away" starts from modern-day Tokyo, and Brad Bird's "The Iron Giant"--the best recent animated feature to come out of the United States--starts with '50s America). An understanding of pacing, of the need for moments of tranquility, of how silence can build atmosphere, suspense, a sense of mystery--well, what can you expect from the director of "The Fifth Element?"

Besson has never done an animated feature, but you'd think it would be easy for him--his live-action features ("La Femme Nikita," "Leon," the aforementioned "Fifth Element," even the godawful "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc") already have a strong cartoonish feel--yet on top of the trite storyline and flat characterization are totally uninspired CGI animation (well, arguably all CGI animation looks uninspired) and action sequences.

The action in particular is a keen disappointment--say what you will about his work (trite storyline, flat characterization, relentless frivolousness (where he hasn't flopped over into turgid portentousness)), Besson at least knew how to stage and shoot action sequences. Here, the action looks pretty much like in any other CGI feature ("Robots," "Over the Hedge," you name it)--loud, frenetic, basically glorified amusement park rides writ large.

It's as if animation, with its endless possibilities, had shackled the man instead of freeing him; or rather, given the opportunity to do literally anything he wanted thanks to the miracle of animation, Besson reveals his innermost desires to be as banal and mediocre as anyone else's. Late last year Besson made the announcement that after "Arthur" he was to retire from filmmaking and devote time to charity work and his family (fat chance; he's mentioned making a trilogy out of "Arthur," a la Peter Jackson). I wish he'd stick to his word.

Note: First published in Businessworld, 01/19/07.
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February 2 , 2007