latest, "Arthur and the Invisibles" (2006) is roughly the equivalent
of a McDonald's hamburger--not poisonous, per se, but not exactly
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.
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.
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
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
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
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?"
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.
First published in Businessworld, 01/19/07.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org