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Arthur And The Invisibles

Weinstein Company/EuropaCorp (January 12 2007), Weinstein/Genius Products (May 15 2007), single disc, 94 mins plus supplements, 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1, Rated PG, Retail: $28.95

Storyboard:

Adventurous dreamer Arthur seems to have it all: an idyllic existence in a grand country residence where he lives with his Granny…but not the close love of his parents, who are off in the big city looking for work. Grandpa Archibald, an African explorer who brought together the very tall Matassalai and very small Minimoy tribes, is also missing, with the secret location of where he buried his stash of rubies in the back yard gone with him. With Granny’s considerable estate under threat of possession, Arthur follows Archibald’s instructions to find his way into the world of the Minimoys, the ancient family of creatures that may hold the key to where his Grandpa disappeared to, and be able to help save both their homes…

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The Sweatbox Review:

Not so long ago I sat through – actually, make that endured – a “delightful” animated outing named Boo, Zino And The Snurks, or whatever the thing was called. The odd styling and completely hopeless story seemed to have been built around some admittedly wonderful background designs, but the movie was a mess, as any animated picture featuring the voice of Freddie Prinze Jr usually is (think Happily N’Ever After and the long in the works but doomed project Delgo). I was expecting much the same from Arthur And The Invisibles, even though the estimable talents of French director Luc Besson were involved.

Besson is probably best known to wider audiences as the creator of The Fifth Element, the special effects filled Bruce Willis blockbuster, though I have been a fan of his since his earlier French pictures Subway, The Big Blue and La Femme Nikita. When Arthur was announced – as the biggest animated undertaking in French movie history – opinions were split on whether this would be some groundbreaking new direction for animation, or if it would just be the result of another live-action director packing up his cameras for the safer, warmer climes of the computer studio. That some people were surprised the director of such violent action hits as Nikita and fan favorite Leon: The Professional was moving into animation didn’t both me…we’ve recently seen Mad Max director George Miller liaise with dancing penguins, for instance, and a filmmaker’s best weapon is diversification.

Unfortunately the Weinstein Brothers, who seem to be snapping up animation rights left right and center, sensed something unique, picked up Arthur during production and did their usual thing: bringing in celebrity voices, altering the film (trimming it from its French 104 minute run time to a US-friendly 94) and generally sounding as if they were “dumbing it down” for American audiences. The first thing to go was the title, swapping the original English translation Arthur And The Minimoys for Invisibles, which alludes to a whole other kind of feature. If you can get past that, it does make some kind of sense, since the Minimoys are such small creatures that they are practically “invisible” to the naked eye, especially adults. The title change oddly doesn’t extend to the web, where the movie’s producer EuropaCorp’s English language site still promotes it as Arthur And The Minimoys, which is really as it should be.

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The movie itself only slightly belies its mixed parentage, with several moments where things don’t quite gel and one music score sound edit that is perhaps the most noticeable I’ve ever come across in a major production. The dubbing is good, without too many lapses in sync, and the language barriers appear to be crossed easily apart from a couple of instances of plot exposition, especially one late in the film by David Bowie’s villainous Maltazard, who struggles to fit all his dialogue into the available mouth movements. Interestingly, the 20 minute-plus live-action opening (featuring Mia Farrow as the Grandma, putting in delightful work) and most of the animation actually looks to have been shot for English, as many Euro animated films are in order to secure international distribution, so I have to wonder if this wasn’t intended from the start.

Of the other star names, Madonna doesn’t annoy at all as Selenia, probably because the character doesn’t exhibit any common “Madonna traits”, and partly because she’s acting in voice only. Her character is also easily the best animated, with real weight to her movement in the action scenes. Playing off each other as the big-wigs of the Minimoy tribe are Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel – obvious inclusions down to Harvey Weinstein’s involvement. While Keitel seems to have fun with his small role, De Niro is simply awful, sounding as if he’d been suckered into doing this to pay off some kind of contractual favor. There are some lines he’s been given that sound as if he’s just read them off the page in sarcastic mock pathos, such is the flatness to his performance. Vastly more successful is David Suchet as the soft-toned Narrator, and I’m glad he was credited at the end because he lends the film such a level of warmth that I was puzzling all through the picture trying to work out who it was! Excellent work from him here.

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As the head villain, Bowie brings to mind his similar smart aleck part in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, with a twisty-turny nature and coldness in his voice perfect for how his character looks. Perhaps even more than Selenia, Maltazard is easily the most successfully designed creature and makes a lasting impression because of such, coupled with some truly affecting animation. In the nominal lead, Freddie Highmore is Arthur. Perhaps the leading British child star of his generation, he’s impressed before, in Finding Neverland and Burton/Depp’s Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, where he reminded of young Paul Terry from another Burton/Dahl adaptation, James And The Giant Peach. He’s as good again here, both in the 1950s set bookends and as the voice of the animated Minimoy Arthur.

In fact the film often reminded me of a James And The Giant Peach kind of movie, and it follows the same rules: a young boy heads into a mysterious dream-like world and turns into an animated character to experience the adventure. Both follow, of course, the conventions of such classic books as Alice In Wonderland, Peter Pan and The Wizard Of Oz in that children find themselves taking a trip to another dimension, where events transpire to clear up some emotional wrong doing in their real world, which they eventually realise they must return to. For all of its own originality, Arthur also liberally “borrows” from other sources. Giant Peach has been noted, but other clear inspirations include the young King Arthur story where someone must remove a sword from a stone, as well as in the underlying Harry Potter-esque running premise that presents a villain with a name that must not be said. Most of all is the striking similarity to The Borrowers, ironical considering its name, in its thematic approach…I was half expecting the Minimoys to come out fighting at the end and take down the greedy land-grabber who is painted, naturally, as an overweight, sweaty greasebucket.

Yes, it’s all derivative, but so is Potter, and like that series it’s all pulled off in an old-fashionably refreshing way that melds the elements together without offence. Central to this is the Minimoy Universe, shaped principally by Patrice Garcia, who again brings various inspirations into the mix (apart from other touches, I noted a heavy nod to Jim Henson and Brian Froud’s The Dark Crystal creatures). The designs are great, as would be expected from creator Besson’s fertile imagination, and look almost photorealistic – an intention, I would imagine, since the characters have to meld with the live-action segments. Perhaps that’s why the animation quality is so high, with roughly two-thirds of the film set in the digital realm, the artists were able to spend more time on their fewer shots. While the characters don’t look like much when standing still on printed material (Betameche keeps reminding me of those Troll toy figures), when they move across the screen there’s real magic.

For a CG picture, everything has the unique look of the world having been lived in and, in keeping with the backstory of the Minimoys, organic. In some instances I was reminded of another French feature, the good-looking but poorly animated Kaena: The Prophecy, which I haven’t seen in its entirety but got the same warm, glow-like feeling from the lush imagery. The transformation from live-action Arthur into animated Minimoy is creatively done, using a telescope as the object of miniaturisation, which was neat. I had to smile to myself when we first saw Arthur as a Minimoy – quite why he doesn’t resemble an animated Highmore more directly isn’t explained, but with his shock white hair, I thought he looked like a young Luc Besson!

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Working with his usual musical collaborator, Besson entrusts the score to Eric Serra, whose lush strings sound suitably magical and stirring, and about as far away as the stark and minimal approaches he brought to such action fare as the James Bond movie GoldenEye or Besson’s Leon. On occasions the music is almost predictable in where it’s going, and I found myself humming along even though this was the first time I had heard these themes. It comes off like one of those scores for Amazing Stories: a full-blown movie soundtrack that packs in all the required emotions, but in something of a cut-and-paste cue style, though this could be the results of some trimming to the picture’s length.

Happily, Arthur And The Invisibles is an enjoyable affair, though one gets the feeling that this American version is more filtered than Besson’s usually multi-layered works. The good news is that there are hardly any “hip” (read: out of touch) pop culture references, apart from a 1970s disco scene that is unknown as to whether its a Weinstein addition or Besson’s intention – no matter, it’s out of place in this ostensibly 1950s setting anyhow. There are hints of the director’s other works – the clumsy soldiers reminded me of the more wacky elements in The Fifth Element – and, though this is a departure for him, his European sensibilities at least serve up an unique piece of children’s entertainment that’s different to all the other animal animation copies that we’ve seen over the past year or so.

Although the film had a good run in France, I’m not sure the lacklustre box office take in the US will mean that Besson gets to expand on the Minimoy stories here, which is what he’d previously stated was the intention to do over three films, and has indeed continued in a further book series. Based on the evidence presented in this version, I’d certainly be interested in finding my own way into the original French Minimoy Universe sometime to see how the director’s own cut differs. In the meantime, Arthur And The Invisibles provides a fun, charming slice of entertaining escapism for children of all ages.

Is This Thing Loaded?

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This is only the second Weinstein DVD I’ve come across so far, so I wasn’t sure what to expect in the way of how the disc might be authored. They have a pretty nice logo, which switches to a Coming Soon blurb: we get previews for the theatrical Scarlett Johansson “comedy” The Nanny Diaries and the DVD release of the Renée Zellweger-starring Miss Potter, an account of the creation of Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, Jemima Puddleduck and many more that also features touches of effective animation. It’s a sweet little film, which comes recommended itself. Zellweger’s co-star Ewan McGregor pops up again in the “now available” Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker, and there are predictable pushes for Weinstein animated properties Hoodwinked and the awful, awful Doogal, but skip that one, get yourself a multi-region player and grab the much funnier and more cohesive original version The Magic Roundabout from Region 2.

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Luc Besson isn’t one for audio commentaries going on past releases of his movies, and here is no exception. Coupled with the fact that this is his film and no one else would seem qualified to speak for it, it’s understandable that there’s no such feature here. The best we get is The Voices Of Arthur And The Invisibles, a seven minute featurette that goes behind the microphones. It’s actually a fair piece for what it is and though we don’t hear from bigger-than-big performers Madonna and David Bowie, there’s lots of footage of the rest of the cast in the recording booth miming their lines to pre-rendered animation. Serial voice-offender Jimmy Fallon, who actually doesn’t grate as much here as in other projects, does the prerequisite name checking of people he’s always wanted to work with, while I got a shock seeing how grown up Jason Bateman is now after not seeing him in anything since the 1980s!

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The Quest For Love music video by Jewel (3:15 in letterboxed 4:3) borrows imagery from the movie and slots her into the picture storybook seen in the story. The song, a catchy mix of country and anthem for the end credits, is pretty good and reminds us what a shame it was that the Weinsteins didn’t put Arthur forward for any Oscar consideration, since this track might have been in with a chance. In The Recording Studio With Jewel (2:20) has the singer recording the song interspersed with her reflecting on how it relates to the themes in the movie and how she feels some of the best musical material has been written for animated films. Though she looks good in both clips, this one doesn’t add too much and just as my mind wandered, I couldn’t help notice how wonky her teeth were in some shots!

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Nothing in the world could have prepared me for the next extra, the Beautiful Day music video by Elijah. Who’s Elijah? Beats me, but he’s not what I was expecting as the simple but effective animated clip began! As the camera swoops around to a cartoon high school, out pops a precocious munchkin kid who can’t be older than 10, rapping his way through an appeal to an equally aged girl to “pick up the phone and call me”. Not only is it highly dubious watching such a youngster trying to emote to the lyrics he’s been given, but the blatant sensationalism of the situation is exactly the kind of imagery that is leading our kids to feel forced into growing up too early. Though it’s probably unfair to lay the problems of the world on a throwaway music clip, I found this to be in poor taste, especially on a family DVD edition, and the silhouetted sexy dancers didn’t help. It runs 3:20, in letterboxed 4:3, but there’s really no need to ever watch this.

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Our penultimate bonus is the Chosen Trailer from the Make Your Own Arthur Movie Mash-Up game, which seems to have been an online promotion in which kids were able to create their own trailer for Arthur And The Invisibles. “Peter” was the winner, apparently, and his preview played on the Nickelodeon channel in the lead up to the movie’s theatrical release. I’m guessing the kids had a “kit of parts” that merely needed placing in some kind of “right” order to create the clip, since the result is so professionally slick it virtually runs (in 2.35:1 letterboxed 4:3) like any other regular 30-second TV spot, with no other context given.

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Finally, the exciting original Theatrical Trailer, presented in 2.35 letterboxed 4:3, provides a nice and suitable addition in this time of such things going routinely missing on animated releases. The main menu serves the disc well, being lushly scored with music from the movie and a montage of imagery. In fact, when I saw how the funny little characters looked when they started moving around, I was quite impressed and immediately raised my expectations. And if a menu can get you excited about the movie you’re about to watch, then job done! Despite the existence of a TV special that ran on ABC Family at the time of the film’s US release, The Making Of The Year’s Greatest Adventure oddly isn’t included here.

Case Study:

No slipcover for the Weinstein Company’s fairly low-key release, and the cover art itself – Freddie Highmore looking in aside – doesn’t really do a lot to not make the thing look computery and just like all the other CGI product out there. When one has seen the story, Highmore peeking over the grass at the Minimoys doesn’t even make sense! A sticker on the front promises a “valuable offer from Langers Juice inside”, which turns out to be, once you get past those tricky side clamps, a chapter insert-sized coupon for a buck off any in their range. There’s no chapter index guide itself, but the disc art does a nice job of replicating the teaser poster artwork, which was much more quite inviting.

Ink And Paint:

There’s not a lot to say about the majority of digitally created movies when it comes to picture quality on DVD as most of them are quite exceptional, just as they should be in this day and age. It’s only really when an image disappoints that comments are easy to find, but in Arthur’s case everything – including the film-shot live-action segments – is spotless and sharp looking, as you would expect from a dual-layered disc that probably contains less than two hours of content. ’Nuff said.

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Scratch Tracks:

As with the visuals, audio mastering is now almost impossible to get wrong and a big studio release that doesn’t sound up to scratch is a rare thing indeed. So Arthur is perfectly adequate in the sound section too, with even a couple of sequences having good fun with directional effects and the ADR dubbed voices’ slight reverb delay having the echo effect of making your home theater sound bigger. The original French dub is sadly not included despite the space for it, but English captions and Spanish subtitles are provided.

Final Cut:

Arthur And The Invisibles had me enjoying myself enough to want to check out the alternative French version, which comes to DVD there in July, no doubt in a much more spiffy package than this. Arthur And The…whatever you want to call them is an enjoyable enough outing but one does get the sense that the original might be even more well crafted. Luc Besson certainly thinks so: since the US distribution of his film, he has taken Weinstein to task for “ruining” his film and being the hardest company he has dealt with in his 30 years of filmmaking. Showing just what a class act head honcho Harvey Weinstein truly is, the guy who has “adopted” so many decent animated projects and turned them into ungainly rip-offs, simply called Besson “a has been”. Based on that alone, I’d recommend Arthur And The Invisibles for the good touches in the movie, but would suggest you seek out Arthur And The Minimoys to justly experience what this film really could have been.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

MAIN FEATURE
SUPPLEMENTS
VIDEO IMAGE
SOUND TRACK
OVERALL DVD

 

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