Based on characters and concepts from the husband and wife design team of Céline and Patrice Garcia, and co-written and directed by Luc Besson, "Arthur and the Invisibles" was clearly created to compete with similar computer generated children's films from Pixar and DreamWorks. But "Arthur," a digitally animated and live action movie opening today, contains so many Franco-Americanisms that you can almost smell the cheese on its breath.
1950s rock 'n' roll? Check. African tribesmen? Check. Nonspecific rap-rasta-musician characters? Check. A "Pulp Fiction" homage? Check. A midriff-baring, albeit sword-wielding, mini-Barbarella nymphette? Check. Art nouveau design tropes? Check. David Bowie? Check. Unfunny physical comedy? Check. All it lacks is a Jerry Lewis reference and a blast of techno music.
Mr. Besson's characteristic Gallic take on American-style blockbuster filmmaking has resulted in some truly punishing and dumb live action movies like "The Fifth Element" and "The Messenger." Making a children's movie on purpose appears to have blunted his usual jambon-fisted camera excesses. The charms of "Arthur and the Invisibles," such as they are, come mostly from seeing cynical, formulaic Hollywood kid stuff reflected through a French cultural fun house mirror.
The film begins as young Arthur (Freddy Highmore) arrives to spend a summer with his grandmother (Mia Farrow) in a Norman Rockwell by way of Monet house (the live action sequences were shot in the beautiful, cool light of Normandy). When not doting on Arthur, Grandma pines for her husband, an explorer who vanished into either Africa or the front lawn (it's not initially clear which) several years in the past.
Grandpa's absence has left Grandma financially vulnerable, just as Arthur's parents' absence has left Arthur emotionally vulnerable. But the inevitable knock on the door, sadly, is Grandma's creditors, not Arthur's mom and dad. Unless Grandpa returns from wherever he's gone with a bag of rubies that are supposedly hidden somewhere on the property, the house and the gardens around it will be razed to make way for an apartment building.
As intrepid kid heroes are wont to do, Arthur takes Grandma's fanciful tales of Grandpa's friends the Minimoys — a race of tiny elf creatures — literally. With the help of a group of Masai-like warriors who arrive on the porch late one night, Arthur follows a series of instructions Grandpa has left for him and shrinks himself down to Minimoy size. Once safely in Minimoy turf, Arthur, now remade as a CGI elf with Mr. Highmore's voice, meets Princess Selenia, who looks like an animated version of those disturbing Steve Madden child-women that were decorating local bus stops last year. Mr. Besson has astutely cast 49-year-old Madonna as Selenia's voice, perhaps to thwart overeager patronage by the brown raincoat set.
The bad news is that the princess, her father the king, and her brother Betameche (breathlessly voiced by Jimmy Fallon, apparently being paid by the syllable) are rapidly running out of ideas in a protracted conflict with the evil Maltazard. The good news is that Arthur's ruby rescuing agenda and the Minimoys anti-Maltazard agenda match up perfectly. With the king's blessing, Arthur, Selenia, and Betameche set out across the microworld of granny's garden to smoke Maltazard out of his lair, find the rubies, and save the day on both ends of the microscope.
"Arthur and the Invisibles" was co-produced by Mr. Besson and by BUF, a French digital effects house that contributed memorable sequences to "Fight Club" and "2046." Using new motion capture technology, Mr. Besson photographed the film's lengthy CGI fantasy sequences with a live action cast and then turned his footage over to an army of eager young digital age filmmakers, who spent the better part of six years layering on the computer magic. Unfortunately, only two of them worked on the script. Like most of Mr. Besson's movies, "Arthur and the Invisibles" can't seem to sustain or support any one piece of story or character logic for more than five minutes.
"I like something to nibble-on during a good tale," the King says. Though for the most part "Arthur and the Invisibles" is an unsurprising and muddled Smurfs-onsteroids adventure, there are some things to nibble on here and there. The CGI details, many generated from elaborate and painstakingly sculpted miniature sets, often attract the eye like coins on the sidewalk. Mr. Highmore's whispery English accent is backed up by evident physical conviction in the live action sequences, and the vocal talents of David Bowie as Maltazard and Jason Bateman as his lisping son enliven the film's third act considerably.
I was lucky enough to screen "Arthur and the Invisibles" with an audience of genuine children, not middle-aged writers, and it seemed to go over well with the kids. The film's sensuous digital textures, non-stop score, and entirely familiar characters and situations were like the 6-to-12-year-old equivalent of a mobile hung over a crib.
The only astonished gasps came from the adult members of the audience when the closing credits confirmed that in addition to Madonna, Mr. Fallon, Mr. Bowie, and Mr. Bateman, Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, and Chazz Palminteri had each lent their voices to key characters. If these legends didn't get a free trip to France out of their respective deals, I hope they were at least paid in euros. None of the three were recognizable on-screen until the credits. Perhaps that was the way that they wanted it.