Genius Products // 2007 // 94 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Rafael Gamboa (Retired) // May 28th, 2007
"Adventure awaits in your own backyard!"
Before I begin this review, allow me to preface it: I'm not reviewing this film based on its appeal to children and its ability to entertain them. Most kids enjoy any animated thing they see unless the film is really, really, really awful, which this movie isn't. I mean, my generation used to watch crap like Are You Afraid of the Dark? and love it. So don't worry; while this will certainly not be the best that your children have seen, they will like it and have fun watching it. The question is, will you as an adult enjoy it too, or would you rather pick up a classic like A Bug's Life to watch with your kids instead?
This film has 5 1/2 stars out of ten on IMDb. It has a 20% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Knowing this, I sat before my television with a hockey mask strapped tightly to my face and a thick protective layer of good movies duct taped to my body in case feces began to spontaneously hurl itself off the screen at me. To my surprise, the experience was not nearly as bad as everyone was telling me it would be. Granted, it's not a good movie, but it is far enough away from awful that at least some parts of it can be genuinely enjoyed.
The plot of this one is very simple. Arthur (Freddie Highmore, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) is the requisite brave little boy upon whom the fate of the film's world depends. He and he alone (well, mostly alone) can triumph where adults have failed. The peril? His family's countryside house is about to be bought and subsequently torn down by a mean old capitalist pig-dog (Adam LeFevre, Rounders). His mission? Get the money his family needs to pay off the mean old capitalist pig-dog -- in this case, his grandfather's stash of rubies, acquired during his adventuring in Africa. The hook? The rubies are hidden somewhere in the underground world of the Minimoys, a race of teeny weeny people. His grandfather (Ron Crawford, Dancing Ground) went looking for his rubies and never came back, and now it's up to Arthur to finish the task.
This is director Luc Besson's (The Fifth Element, Angel-A) first foray into children's movies and animation. Okay, you can put your eyebrow down. No, I'm not lying. He really did make this movie -- and he made it backwards. Instead of having inspiration conk him in the back of the head with a gold brick of a narrative idea and having that as his starting point, he seems to have started by declaring to himself "I want to make a kids' animated feature. What are they like?," then trying to get to a story concept from there. Consequently, instead of being fresh, original, and rich in its universe and story, the film lacks depth and consistency, and seems much more interested in touching upon all the familiar narrative conventions that are generally found in kid flicks than in remaining true to itself. And on top of that, Besson jumped on the big-name-celebrity-voiceover bandwagon. He failed to realize, though, that although big names sound great in the previews, and may encourage parents to bring their kids to watch the film, these little tricks have rarely helped to make the animated film an excellent one.
The first problem with this film is its world. It's not a very good one. Very little time and effort were put into crafting a world for the film, and that's a major misstep. In animated films of this nature, it's all about world-building. The concept: a race of tiny people. How has being tiny affected their way of life, their culture, their behavior? How do they see the world? How do they interact with it? What are their fears, their pleasures, their quirks, etc.? None of this ever has to be explicitly displayed in the film, but had the filmmakers gone through the trouble of answering these and like questions for themselves in a comprehensive manner, it would have shown. Details are what make these kinds of movies, and details aren't possible if you don't have a world to work with. Take Toy Story, for instance. That movie is a wonderful example of world building done right. A lot of thought went into viewing the world from a toy's hypothetical perspective, and into crafting a socially and psychologically complex community of toys. This in turn helped flesh out the protagonists of the film, giving them truly unique personalities and traits that made them memorable and engaging, regardless of whatever familiar roles they were playing in the story. And it also helped create the rich and often unexpected perils and joys that formed the framework for the plot.
All that work is tenuously threadbare in Arthur and the Invisibles. Everything is stripped down to the basic genre requirements. All the characters can be summarized by their narrative functions. We have the precocious child protagonist with a heart of gold, the bumbling sidekick comic relief (Prince Betameche, played by Jimmy Fallon), the beautiful romantic interest (Princess Selenia, played by Madonna), the gung-ho ally who is loathe to admit she needs help (also Selenia), and the two villains: the greedy imperialist pig-dog already mentioned and the cool Evil Lord figure (Maltazard, played with inimitable class by David Bowie). To be safe, Besson also included the token black guy (Max, played by Snoop Dogg) to make sure he had all his bases covered. That's about as deep as their personalities get.
The film mechanically moves these characters through its narrative arc with a brisk smoothness that pretty much eliminates any sort of tension. For any problem that arises, there is one solution to it, and it is inevitably the first solution that occurs to anybody. These solutions rarely take more than two steps to achieve. As far as the problems go, there isn't a single unexpected one; partly, this has to do with the fact that every problem and its solution is neatly foreshadowed at some point, but it also has to do with the fact that this film isn't attempting to be particularly imaginative. It's more worried about being palatable to a wide audience. Palatability in this case means familiarity, so it takes very few risks and keeps new elements to an unobtrusive minimum. It doesn't even bother hiding its formulaic nature, sometimes in despairingly blatant ways. An example: the good Minimoys live in a big circular room underground at the end of a pipe/tunnel. At the other end of this tunnel live the bad Minimoys, also in a big circular room, except this one happens to be blacker. And gee, guess where Granddaddy's rubies are? Yup. Guess where Grandaddy disappeared to? Of course! Where else? But the worst thing (story-wise, anyway) is that because the film just wants to pass Go and collect, its resolution is incredibly unsatisfying. There's no epic showdown with Maltazard; a showdown would require that some of the solutions to the problem of his existence would fail, but this movie never once relents from its one-two pace. Maltazard falls to Arthur's first blow with the dignity of a spanked toddler.
This movie is replete with big name talent voicing even the most insignificant characters (Harvey Keitel as Miro, for instance). For the most part, these big names provide lackluster, uninspired performances. Robert DeNiro in particular is wasted on a crap role as the senile and utterly useless Minimoy King. DeNiro seems as enthusiastic about it as he would about giving an elephant a pedicure. Madonna as a child Arthur's age? Boy, did they drop the ball on that one. And Harvey Keitel didn't even try, he just picked up his paycheck, yawned into the microphone, and left.
Last on this film's list of woes is its animation, which many have whined about. Here, though, I'll begin to defend the film. It's true that compared to the work of Pixar, the quality of the texturing is lacking, the animation is stiff and not as expressive, and the lighting is a bit stark. That being said, considering how intensely difficult it is to animate these kinds of movies, and considering it was animated by a studio that wasn't Pixar, the animation is pretty good. And really, the animation is the least of this film's problems.
And now, for what this film does well. The biggest and brightest aspect of the film is the one risk Luc Besson does take with this project: his decision to switch back and forth between live action and animation continuously throughout the entire film. This is incredibly ambitious, especially because when placed together, even the most realistic of pure CG worlds will look obviously artificial when contrasted with flesh and blood actors (a lesson George Lucas seemingly never learned). Knowing this, Besson did two things: First, he didn't try to make the CG characters look realistic, he made them cartoony. Second, he made the real world look cartoony as well, saturating it with bright, lively colors that match the color palette of the CG world. This makes the transitions smoother, especially for the shots in which he pans or tracks from one world into the other. Besson manages to sustain this half-live action, half-CG approach much better than I would have expected, and though it is not free of rough spots, it is impressively well-done.
Another major highlight is Arthur himself, played by an energetic and talented Freddie Highmore. This kid is a fine actor, and does a better job voicing his CG representation than any of his illustrious cast members. He gives a personality to a character that otherwise wouldn't really have one. And because this film is technically a period piece (it is set in the Great Depression), Arthur is (refreshingly) not a technophile whiz as per the modern trend. This kid is resourceful in the classic way, armed with old-fashioned gadgets and toys. It makes him more appealing in a romantic/adventurous sense, especially with the sheer amount of cool stuff he has. That, coupled with Highmore's natural charisma, make Arthur engaging and interesting. This is a huge bonus, as he is the centerpiece of the film -- a responsibility he shoulders with admirable ease.
And as long as we're praising acting, David Bowie and Chazz Palminteri must be mentioned, as both provide welcome flair to an otherwise humdrum ensemble. Bowie plays Maltazard with an elegant and understated class, sprinkled with just the right amount of leering hauteur. And Palminteri gives his bit part (that of the travel agent) a fun consonant-swallowing drawl. Rob and Nathan Corddry provide most of the good laughs through their semi-improvised banter as Maltazard's dim-witted minions.
Arthur and the Invisibles also indulges in many pop-culture references, which pretty much round up the rest of the laughs. Now, it's true these references are symptomatic of the film's world being insufficient, forcing the script writers to appeal to a world outside of the film to provide entertainment. The worst -- and, paradoxically, the most entertaining -- example is a fight scene that is gratuitously set to several songs, each of which prompts the characters that are fighting to pay homage to movies like Pulp Fiction and Saturday Night Fever as the songs change. Of course these references are chronologically nonsensical, and yes, they expose the film's thin universe, but they are also genuinely funny. Watching Selenia imitate Uma Thurman's famous dance while holding a sword and battling enemies is funny. I don't care how inappropriate the reference is, or how often it's been done.
The movie also manages to pull together some fun sequences as well, in particular an air raid inside the Minimoy's large chamber, where bad guys riding mechanical mosquitoes fly around while dodging catapulted tomatoes fired from Minimoy defense turrets. The fight sequences in general are really fun, and surprisingly ass-kicking for a kid's movie. I have no idea where and how Selenia learned all her impressive combat skills from a supposedly peaceful people, but she's a bruiser!
Hmm. I should probably talk about the DVD now. Well, it's got six special features. Of them, two are trailers and three are music videos or music video-related. Only one of the special features has anything to do with the actual production of the movie, and it's a featurette on the voice acting. It's by far the best one of the bunch, and the longest. Though it doesn't go into much detail, it gives you snippets of some of the work that went into making the movie, in between stretches of "I was excited to work for Luc Besson, I'm a big fan of his work" and "I like working on kids movies because I can watch them with my family." As for the other features, there is a music video of a song by Jewel which was used during the end credits, a small feature interviewing Jewel about the song, and a music video by a preteen rapper named Elijah. I suppose somebody will enjoy the music, but the Jewel interview was pretty useless. Nothing she said was interesting or even intelligent ("That sort of idea is there too, that courage doesn't have a size"), and if she did say anything interesting, it was cut out of this insanely short featurette. The DVD offers two trailers, one official and the other the winning entry of the "Make Your Own Arthur and the Invisibles Movie Mash-Up" contest. And, well, they're trailers, what else can I say?
Long story short, this movie isn't very good. But it's not bad in a way that's really painful to watch (unless you're a big fan of Luc Besson; then it might sting a little), it's just bad in a very unsatisfying way. It does have its moments, enough of them to make the experience intermittently entertaining. You can definitely watch this movie with your kids without having to suppress an impulse to tear out your eyeballs. However, I would suggest watching something else instead, like Over the Hedge.
The court finds this film to be guilty of being lame, despite having its heart in the right place.
Review content copyright © 2007 Rafael Gamboa; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* The Voices of Arthur and the Invisibles
* "Quest for Love" Music Video Performed by Jewel
* In the Recording Studio with Jewel
* "Beautiful Day" Performed by Elijah
* The Chosen Trailer from the "Make Your Own Arthur and the InvisiblesMovie Mash-Up" Game
* Theatrical Trailer
* Official Site