Slogging out to the multiplexes to see 2006's overstuffed lineup of CGI-animated kids' films was a truly soul-deadening experience. These polished widgets -- Over the Hedge, The Ant Bully, Cars, Barnyard, Flushed Away -- dropped off the conveyor belt like so many shining pennies, exactly the same and worth about as much. Most of these films used the exact same template: An outsider hero with some kind of "loner" issues was accidentally thrust into a world peopled with colorful characters. After facing some kind of larger challenge, the hero learned how to be part of a family. These films didn't even bother to disguise their boredom; they could have been generated from the same computer program.
For the record (and to register a differing opinion from that of our own Kim Voynar) George Miller's Happy Feet is the year's only example of animated excellence; it's the only entry that demonstrates even the tiniest form of imagination, and it has practically become a phenomenon among audiences starved for such things.
But Luc Besson's Arthur and the Invisibles runs a distant second (despite the fact that the Weinsteins recently panicked and dis-invited critics from promo screenings). I liked it mainly because it bucks the current trend by ignoring that cold, professional formula. It has a scrappy, sloppy feel, as if it were made by human hands.
Based on a book by Luc Besson and directed by same, the film begins with a live-action sequence: Freddie Highmore (from Finding Neverland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and A Good Year) stars as Arthur, a single-minded lad staying with his granny (Mia Farrow) on her farm while his parents are away working in the city. Arthur's grandfather -- an explorer -- has been missing for some time, and now the family is in danger of losing the farm. Their one hope lies in Arthur finding a stash of rubies -- a prize from his grandfather's travels -- buried somewhere in the yard.
Following clues left by his grandfather, Arthur discovers a way to visit the Minimoys, a tribe of small, Smurf-like creatures living in and under the yard. During his journey to their world, he transforms into a Minimoy himself, complete with spiky hair and pointy ears. He meets the king (voiced by Robert De Niro) and the king's right-hand man Miro (voiced by Harvey Keitel) and tries to enlist their help, but first he must help stop the resident bad guy Maltazard (voiced brilliantly by David Bowie) and his evil plans to flood the Minimoy nation using technology that Arthur has unwittingly provided.
This leads to a road trip. Arthur accompanies the headstrong Princess Selenia (voiced by Madonna) and her obnoxious little brother Betameche (voiced by the obnoxious Jimmy Fallon). Along the way, they meet all kinds of colorful characters, including a difficult travel agent (voiced by Chazz Palminteri), as well as Koolomassai (voiced by Anthony Anderson) and Max (voiced by Snoop Dogg), who run a nightclub.
Admittedly, the dancing/fighting sequence in the nightclub (taking place mainly on top of a giant, spinning record) is pretty cool, but many other ideas are clearly borrowed from pop culture sources young and old. From the King Arthur legend, there's actually a sword buried in a stone, and only the chosen one may draw it. And, of course, Maltazard -- like Harry Potter's Lord Voldemort -- bears a "name that may never be spoken." Some viewers have noted that Besson even rips off himself, borrowing ideas from The Fifth Element (1997). (Could Leeloo from that film be a grown-up Minimoy?)
That, I think, is the key to the movie. Most kids' movies spend all their energy desperately trying to please their fickle audience, panting and licking like eager puppies. With Arthur and the Invisibles, Besson doesn't seem to care much; he's out to have fun. He approaches the material as if he were a kid himself, rather than a committee trying to figure out how to sell a product to kids. To that end, he colors outside the lines and uses his imagination to fill in the blanks.
My major quibble is that the picture moves a bit too fast, probably in an attempt to cover up its lack of smoothness. It suggests that Besson doesn't trust his work as much as he should have. Further proof lies in the superior craftsmanship of the live-action sequences; when Arthur races around, collecting the clues he needs to solve the puzzle, Besson's camera glides along with him, seemingly free of restraint. Ironically, the film seems far more baffled by the CG aspect, which should be freer than the live-action segments. Perhaps Arthur and the Invisibles would have been better served by an all-live-action treatment, in which case we might have ended up with something kooky, scrappy and slightly off-key, like The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953), Time Bandits (1981) or Labyrinth (1986).Regardless, Besson has announced a series of sequels, which promises a love affair between Arthur and the Princess. This should be interesting, if one can look past the fact that Highmore is 14 and Madonna is 48. Do I sense another Notes on a Scandal on the horizon?