When Luc Besson announced that Arthur And The Invisibles, would be his final outing as a director, it seemed an uncharacteristic coda to his career. After all, as writer, producer or director, Besson is best known for the amped-up violence of 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 is very much of a piece with the rest of Besson's oeuvre. 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 American popular movies, and then to regurgitate their content in a chaotic, pre-digested mass. This children's film 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 (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 10-year-old Arthur (Highmore) has two days to locate the rubies that his grandfather is supposed to have hidden in the garden, before an avaricious building contractor (Lefevre) can evict Arthur's grandmother (Farrow) and level the property.
Following a series of clues left by his grandfather, Arthur 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 (Fallon) to find his lost grandfather, retrieve the rubies, and defeat the evil half-Minimoy half-weevil known as Maltazard (Bowie).
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? These questions prove a major and unnecessary distraction in a film that otherwise has so little to engage the adults in the audience. Children may be mesmerised by the fairytale adventures of Arthur And The Invisibles, but parents may wish they were as absent as Arthur's own mother and father.
Besson applies his usual scatter-gun approach to art, as if tossing random excerpts from anywhere and everywhere is enough to yield great cinema. It isn't. Viewers may recognize elements familiar from Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, The Wizard Of Oz, Star Wars, Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, Labyrinth, Shrek, Finding Nemo 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, David Bowie, Mia Farrow, Madonna, Snoop Dogg and Chazz Palminteri, and yet still manages to turn out something charmless, soulless and colourless. It is only the CG characters, ironically, who display any signs of life, with Bowie's magnificently malevolent Maltazard and Madonna's sassily disgruntled Selenia 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 truly bad, Arthur And The Invisibles commits the arguably greater crime of being just average. Kids may be diverted by it, at least until the next big-budget animated feature comes along - but adults would do better to check out Pan's Labyrinth instead, if only to reassure themselves that there is still life in the fairytale genre yet.