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Monday, January 15, 2007

Arthur and the Invisibles

My perfect husband Fred never reads the comics in the newspaper. He would rather clean out cat boxes than watch the Cartoon Network on tv, and he thinks a ‘graphic novel’ is something written by Jackie Collins, usually with a lot of explicit sex in it. So knowing all of this I wish I could explain why then My Beloved insists that whenever an animated movie arrives at the Essex Cinemas he is one of the first in line. This week was no exception as he grabbed my hand and whisked me off to see Arthur and the Invisibles.

I had just seen Dreamgirls at the
Essex Cinemas earlier in the day, so my mind was still on the songs and choreography of that experience and I was not quite ready to focus on what we were there to see, which may have been a good thing because if I had know what to expect I’m not sure I’d have wanted to go. Arthur and the Invisibles sounded positively childish when Fred tried to explain what we were about to watch, but it turned out there is so much more to it than what the basic plot offers. It's really 'The Wizard of Oz' meets 'A Nightmare on Elm Street' in this anime-inspired quest adventure that's definitely not for the wee ones. To gag on a cliché, it truly is a visual feast.

The plot itself is easy enough to follow: ten year old Arthur (Freddie Highmore; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), lives on a small farm with his grandmother, played by Mia Farrow (The Omen). Both share lives of loneliness. Granny’s husband, an explorer, disappeared three years previously while on a search for a mystical land from which he never returned. As for Arthur, his life has been one of solitude. First he was in boarding school in England, and then when he returned home for the summer he found his parents had left him with Granny while they went off to New York in search of careers on Broadway, not even bothering to come home to celebrate his birthday with him, as usual.

The big crisis that moves Arthur (and the plot) into action is an order of eviction that demands that Granny and Arthur either pay a huge sum of money for back taxes or their home will be seized and sold in 48 hours. Since Granny had told Arthur a long-winded story about Grandpa’s hiding a treasure somewhere on their property Arthur is determined to find it to pay off the debt and save the day. His only problem is he has no idea where to start except to search for clues in his Grandpa’s office. It is there he learns the secrets which lead him to the Land of the Minimoys.

The Minimoys are extremely tiny brings that live in the garden behind Arthur’s home. I thought they looked like fleas and I’d have probably wiped them all out with a dose of Raid® if I’d found them on my plants, but fortunately for
them they live in a movie world where the old gal (Farrow) who owns the garden apparently never comes near it. So through a silly bit of hocus pocus like one finds only in the movies, Arthur not only shrinks to the size of a Minimoy, he becomes one and the film turns into an oddly animated expedition with characters voiced by some big Hollywood names, including Madonna, Robert De Niro, Emilio Estevez, Jimmy Fallon, Harvey Keitel, Snoop Dogg, Jason Bateman and Chazz Palminteri.

Of course, the treasure Arthur seeks has been stolen by the land’s evil threat, Maltazard (voiced with perfect malevolence by David Bowie; The Prestige), which means there is going to be a quest journey at hand with lots of unpleasant frights in store before Arthur can right things and get home with the loot to save the day.

The animation is colorful, bright, and complex. Unfortunately, the action within the tale moves so quickly that some of the imaginative details such as the intricately designed architecture and the finely embroidered costumes of the secondary characters are lost on viewers who might otherwise appreciate their features. As for the Minimoys themselves, they reminded me of the troll dolls so popular among children back in the 1960s with their tufts of bright hair, their big, pointed ears, and beady eyes.

Director and writer Luc Besson (The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc) is well-known for both his stunning visuals and his less-than-well-crafted
story lines. Many of his movies (The Fifth Element; Subway) meander and one almost wishes this one would a bit. Instead, it travels at lightening speed, packing the story with tons of action and comedy in situations that pass by so quickly the dialogue and characters that are introduced are said and gone before you can even figure out who they are and what their roles are supposed to be. There really is enough plot here to create two or three films if Besson had thought to flesh out the characters and their motivations.

There is also a lot of graphic violence in the fight scenes, though the results of the battles are harmless enough or the victims are never seen afterwards, but for some kids the scenes themselves may be a bit much. An invasion of troops on what (to the Minimoys are) giant mosquitoes is unnerving and unexpected, so Parents, consider yourself warned! Even this Old Lady found herself swerving in her seat to avoid getting hit by the oncoming horde, so you can imagine that if I was into the action that much your seven year old will probably be just as scared.

A lot is left unexplained in the Land of Minimoy. Why, for example, is the Princess Selenia (Madonna; Swept Away) expected to remove the sword from the stone ala King Arthur when she is already in line to inherit the crown? And how does Arthur, an unremarkable boy until entering the Land of the Minimoy, suddenly become such a superhero? And wouldn’t you really want to see what made Maltazard the hateful beast he has become? For that matter, why must the Princess marry in two days? What would happen if she doesn’t? There are literally dozens of questions that are never explained, which, for younger viewers is no problem, but for older kids or adults these gaps in the story may make the film itself seem to be lacking. Who knows? Perhaps Besson plans to answer some of these concerns in the inevitable sequel(s). As Besson has already published an entire series of “Arthur” books he has written himself, it is no doubt an inevitability.

Arthur and the Invisibles is a busy swirl of activity but it doesn’t amount to much in the end. Sure, it’s sweet and has the sappy, happy ending you’d expect to find in a children’s movie, but it’s not going to leave an impression that lasts. For that, check out Charlotte’s Web, also at the Essex Cinemas.

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