In point of fact, Besson is only behind the camera some 25 percent of the time, since 75 percent of the picture consists of mediocre CGI from French animation house BUF. But the story is already in trouble well before anything computer-generated makes its appearance.
For reasons not terribly clear and even less important, Arthur (Freddie Highmore) is a young English boy living with his American grandmother (Mia Farrow) in a modest rural home that looks out on a large patch of pristine wilderness. Developers are leering after the land, and, unless Grandma can come up with a pile of cash to pay off the bank, she'll be evicted and the home repossessed. Everything would be fine if Grandpa (Ron Crawford) were around to dig up his priceless stash of African rubies, but the last time he took off looking for them, he went missing, quite likely trapped in the elfin world of his friends, the Minimoys, who reside in a microscopic land just below the topsoil — more Middle Garden than Middle Earth.
Rather than milk this premise for its natural dramatic tension, Besson hastily (and somewhat preposterously) squirrels Arthur through the steps needed to get him into the Minimoy world and begin his obligatory quest. Once converted to CGI-enhanced Minimoy-dom, Arthur turns into a kind of punky-coiffed gnome (think Yu-Gi-Oh's bastard son by Sonic the Hedgehog) who instantly proves his Arthurian calling by yanking a sword from a stone and teaming up with the Minimoy princess (Madonna) to help her father (Robert De Niro) defeat the evil Maltazard (David Bowie) in whose hands Grandpa's missing rubies have become WMD (Weapons of Minimoy Destruction).
In simpler terms: Rubies=Rings. Minimoys=Hobbits. Maltazar=Sauron. Arthur=Frodo, etc. and so on and so forth.
The origins of Arthur and the Invisibles go back to 2002 when Besson, inspired by the work of visual artist Celine Garcia and her husband Patrice Garcia, published four enormously popular books on Arthur's exploits in the world of the Minimoys. The new film, scripted by Besson in collaboration with Garcia, is based on the first two of those books. As with the Harry Potter films, fans who rallied ‘round the stories on paper will likely rally just as blindly ‘round the celluloid incarnation, all but guaranteeing future installments. Saner filmgoers won't be so easily seduced, particularly by the live action/animation switcheroo which, like everything else in the film, is pillaged from better sources — in this instance the 1996 Tim Burton/Henry Selick adaptation of Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach and the 1966 film that first pioneered the idea, the Rankin/Bass production of The Daydreamer.
In fairness, Besson's picture has a certain jokey self-awareness that similar pictures don't, but it comes off like Shrek lite, as if Besson knows it's too derivative to take seriously but can't quite convince himself to go all the way.
None of this will faze the French audiences who constitute Besson's most loyal base of support — for more than a decade now, they've enabled him to build a virtual empire despite soft support for his pictures elsewhere. And, with an entirely different cast of A-list vocal talents for the animated portion,
Arthur et les Minimoys
will save face for the inconsequential
Arthur and the Invisibles. But, unless American audiences decide that warmed-over Roald Dahl mixed with half-baked J.R.R. Tolkien and spiked with a flagrant dollop of Arthurian lore is just the thing to spice up their post-holiday blues, Besson can say bye-bye to the future support of The Weinstein Co. and MGM.
Cast: Fredei Highmore, Mia Farrow, Penny Balfour, Douglas Rand and Ron Crawford
Voices: Robert De Niro, David Bowie, Madonna, Snoop Dogg, Jimmy Fallon, Harvey Keitel, Emilio Estevez, Anthony Anderson, Jason Bateman and Chazz Palminteri
Director/Screenwriter: Luc Besson
Producers: Luc Besson and Emmanuel Prevost
Rating: Not rated
Running time: 94 min.
Release date: December 29, 2006 ltd