Arthur and the Invisibles

Arthur and the Invisibles (Arthur et les Minimoys) (2006)

Arthur and the Invisibles (Arthur et les Minimoys) first published by Film4

Summary: Set in (and beneath) a rural America of the early sixties, Luc Besson’s film is a part-animated fairytale adventure for children.

Review: When Luc Besson announced that his latest directorial feature, Arthur and the Invisibles, was also to be his last, initially it seemed an uncharacteristic film with which to end his career [in fact Besson has since gone on to direct many more films, including multiple sequels of this one]. After all, whether as writer, producer or director, Besson is probably best known for the amped-up violence of movies like Nikita, Leon, The Fifth Element, Taxi, The Transporter and Unleashed, whereas Arthur and the Invisibles is a fantastical blend of live action and animation that is never less than suitable for the youngest of viewers.

In a sense, though, Arthur and the Invisibles (Arthur et les Minimoys) is very much of a piece with the rest of Besson’s œuvre. Where compatriots like Jean-Luc Godard or Jean-Pierre Melville managed to put their own uniquely Gallic stamp on the conventions and genres of mainstream Hollywood cinema, Besson has always seemed content merely to devour all manner of American popular movies, and then to regurgitate their content in a chaotic, pre-digested mass – and this children’s film that is to be his swansong is every bit as flashy, derivative, overwrought and unsubtle as anything else to which he has turned his hand. 

Four years ago, Arthur’s grandfather (Ronald Crawford) mysteriously vanished from his Connecticut home, leaving behind a pile of debts and a journal documenting encounters in Africa with an elf-like tribe of tiny creatures known as the Minimoys. Now ten-year-old Arthur (Freddie Highmore) has just two days to locate the rubies that his grandfather is supposed to have hidden in the garden, before an avaricious building contractor (Adam Lefevre) can evict Arthur’s beloved grandmother (Mia Farrow) and level the property. Following a series of clues left by his grandfather, the young boy finds a telescopic portal that leads him to the seven subterranean kingdoms of the Minimoys, where he joins forces with Princess Selenia (voiced by Madonna) and her younger brother Betameche (Jimmy Fallon) to find his lost grandfather, retrieve the rubies, and defeat the evil half-Minimoy half-weevil known as Maltazard (David Bowie). 

Make no mistake about it, Arthur and the Invisibles has striking settings, cutting-edge 3D animation, a fast-moving pace, and conjures a hidden world full of wonder, invention and beauty – but at the same time it is cluttered with an excess of uneconomic and at times incoherent detail that serves less to entertain than to befuddle the viewer. How come Arthur’s grandparents are Americans while his parents are Brits (in America)? Why does the Great Depression appear to have lasted into the 1960s? How can an impoverished family afford to send Arthur to an English boarding school? No doubt answers could be found to such questions (although they are not to be found within the film itself) – but they prove a major and unnecessary distraction in a film that otherwise has so little to engage any adults in the audience. Children may be mesmerised by the fairytale adventures of Arthur and the Invisibles, but their mums and dads may well wish they were as absent as Arthur’s own parents.

Here Besson applies his usual scatter-gun approach to art, as though tossing seemingly random elements from anywhere and everywhere is enough in itself to yield great cinema. It isn’t. Viewers may recognize elements familiar from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Borrowers, The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, The Ant Bully, The Princess Bride, Labyrinth, Shrek, Finding Nemo, Flushed Away and Arthurian legend – but the unoriginal mess that results is far less than the sum of its parts. Besson commands the dizzying talents of Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Mia Farrow, Snoop Dogg and Chazz Palminteri, and yet still manages to turn out something charmless, soulless and colourless. It is only the CG characters, ironically enough, who display any signs of life, with Bowie’s magnificently malevolent Maltazard and Madonna’s sassily disgruntled Selenia particularly standing out. And what a clever piece of voice-casting: aging siren Madge as a nearly 1000-year-old creature who still has the power to awaken a schoolboy’s erotic fantasies!  

Far from being a truly bad film, Arthur and the Invisibles commits the arguably greater crime of being just plain average. Kids may be diverted by it, at least until the next big-budget animated feature comes along – but grown-ups would do better to check out Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth instead, if only to reassure themselves that there is still life in the fairytale genre yet. 

Verdict: Luc Besson’s live action/animated blend is a fairytale phantasmagoria for the kids and a derivative mess for their parents. 

Anton Bitel