Directed by: Luc Besson
Starring: Freddie Highmore, Mia Farrow, Penny Balfour, David Bowie, Madonna
I gaze over the crop of bad reviews for Luc Besson's Arthur and the Invisibles and find that I really can't argue with almost any of the complaints lodged against the film. The film is almost insultingly derivative, borrowing with wild abandon from such mismatched sources as Stuart Little (1999) and every Harry Potter movie (an arch villain whose name no one -- except the hero -- dares speak aloud?) -- not to mention The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Dark Crystal (1982), a few touches of Tim Burton and a soundtrack that might be more at home on a Quentin Tarantino picture (in fact, some of it has been). To be kind, it's a bit of a mess -- like something cobbled together by a kid who's desperately trying to ape all the movies he thinks are "really cool."
The voice casting is another problem. It's not just that the film's French pedigree and its international cast cause some pretty dicey synchronization problems. The crux of the problem is the fact that most of the high-profile voice talent is uninspired. Among the big names on the English language version, David Bowie, Snoop Dogg and Anthony Anderson come off pretty well, and Madonna isn't disgracefully bad, but she is inessential. Jimmy Fallon, on the other hand, is annoying (probably because he's Jimmy Fallon). However, the bulk of the pricier names -- Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Chazz Palminteri, Emilio Estevez, Jason Bateman -- give performances that could have been done by just about anyone. And that might have been better.
All of these points are noted in the many bad reviews. And yet, there's a kind of loopy charm to it all. That sense of a kid copying bits and pieces of "really cool" movies seeps over into the film in a good way. Besson may be close to plagiarism, and he may be wrongheaded a lot of the time, but he's ended up with a movie that you can't help but feel he wanted to make. This isn't just the crummy CGI-animated movie of the week, done to cash in on a family market that seems willing to sit still for almost any rubbish that's tossed out. No, whatever its flaws, Arthur and the Invisibles has a handmade, personal feel that finally affords it a cockeyed endearing quality.
The live-action scenes -- set in a vaguely early 1960s never-never time -- are both quaint and visually creative. (Besson seems to have endless enthusiasm for cleverly devised shots.) Plus, the performances from Freddie Highmore as Arthur and Mia Farrow as his grandmother are very good. But more, it's Besson's casual acceptance of the most absurd notions that makes it work. (Just wait till a group of Masai tribesmen show up to help transport Arthur down a telescope to the animated land of the Minimoy so he can find his grandfather's treasure and save the old homestead.)
Unfortunately, the animated scenes are rarely more than OK, no matter how fantasticated they look. The only exception to this is a stunningly strange sequence atop a giant phonograph record where the animated Arthur has a sort of dance-off with the bad guys. The animated parts lack the odd juxtapositions of the movie's live-action scenes. Besson's film may only take flight in fits and starts, but it's a darn sight more interesting than most of the family fare out there. Rated PG for fantasy action and brief suggestive material.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke