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The film both entertained and depressed me. It entertained because it's got such good material, and it depressed because, with all this good material, it's still lacking.
The story starts out great and does a good job building anticipation. At first, the movie is live action, and the opening live action sequence is unfortunately the best part of the film. It's nearly perfect except for an obnoxious narrator who keeps breaking in unnecessarily. Anyway, the film is set in 1960. Ten-year-old Arthur (Freddie Highmore) is being raised by his grandmother (Mia Farrow) while his absentee parents (Penny Balfour and Doug Rand) are looking for work in the big city. Arthur's grandfather, missing for years, was a great engineer and explorer in Africa, and Arthur has become obsessed with his adventures, particularly his tales of the Minimoys, a race of tiny people. At some point, we're told, Arthur's grandfather received a big pile of rubies from an African tribe, and then we are made to believe that, instead of turning them into cash or putting them in a safe, he buried them in the garden of his New England home and transplanted the entire Minimoy civilization to take care of them.
If you'll swallow that, you'll love this. Arthur and his grandma are about to be evicted by an evil real estate agent, but in the nick of time, Arthur finds a secret map and secret message from his grandfather, telling him how to shrink down and join the Minimoys. After some hocus pocus, Arthur becomes a Minimoy and the film switches to CGI as he joins Princess Selenia (voiced by Madonna) on an adventure to stop an evil, magical king and get the rubies, saving his grandmother from eviction and the transplanted Minimoys from extinction. Once again, David Bowie is playing the evil, magical king, but this time nobody reminds him of the babe with the power of voodoo.
The transfer from live action to CGI isn't as jarring as I expected, but the film keeps switching back to the live action world, interrupting the flow of the CGI sequences without adding useful information. Mia Farrow begins the movie as a solid portrayal of Arthur's kind and generous grandmother, but after Arthur becomes a Minimoy, she keeps breaking in, wandering around with a blank look on her face, unable to figure out where Arthur went even though he told her specifically that he was going to become a Minimoy and hang out in the garden for a while. I mean, yeesh.
The movie bears the heavy hand of director/co-writer Luc Besson, who formerly wrote and directed The Fifth Element. That film was a punk rocker future space opera, and Arthur and the Invisibles is more or less a punk rocker magic kingdom adventure. Now that I think about it, that girl in The Fifth Element and Selenia have the same hair. I guess Besson has a thing for short red hair that looks as if it hasn't been washed in a while.
There are a number of plot holes, and though the movie has an epic-sized premise, it appears stunted. After everything switches to CGI, everything becomes rushed and the characters talk super-fast. The action sequences are incoherent, and there are a few anachronisms (particularly a gangsta character voiced by Snoop Dog) that distract and detract from the movie's scope without adding much humor or plot. Though Arthur has to go through a lot to shrink into a Minimoy, after that he has little to do except swing a sword around and put the moves on Madonna.
Speaking of putting the moves on Madonna, I think this quote from David Germain's review for the Associated Press is worth repeating:
Granted, these are just cartoon figures, but there's something mildly unsavory about a 48-year-old woman and a 14-year-old boy providing voices for characters who have the hots for each other. Madonna's character is 1,000 years old, Highmore's is an adolescent, and you almost expect Arthur to mutter, "Miss Selenia, you're trying to seduce me."
Anyway, I mention Germain's comment because I'm going to put myself in the unenviable position of defending the movie's portrayal of the relationship between Arthur and Selenia.
It is the characters, and not the voice actors, who are supposed to hold the audience's attention. It's even possible that Highmore and Madonna were never in the same room together during the voice recordings. Highmore's voice is obviously adolescent, true, but Madonna's is not obviously 48, and her voice-over is appropriate to the character.
Luc Besson was apparently aware of the potential objection, and so at a certain point in the movie, when the plot is really going down the tubes, Selenia and Arthur are dancing on top of a spinning record (don't ask) and she tells him that, as a Minimoy, he's the same age she is. Well, that doesn't make any sense to me, as I'm sure Arthur only has the intellectual and emotional development of a ten-year-old, so I suppose she means that, physically, after his transformation, he's a 1,000-year-old Minimoy. Besson probably would have staved off the objections more easily if he hadn't mentioned the age issue. At any rate, I feel bound to defend him, and here's why: Escapist fantasy like this typically contains unlikely heroes who manage to romance princesses. Children's fantasy in particular provides means for its young protagonists to gain acceptance in the adult world. Ready to hand is Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia in which children, at least in Narnia, can sword-fight with adults, so there's no reason why young adolescents couldn't also romance princesses, at least after they've entered the fantasy world and become adults or adult-like. Some female readers may object to a ten-year-old boy being interested in a princess at all. To that, I only say you've obviously never been a ten-year-old boy.
The movie's first fifteen minutes are worth watching for the joy of seeing Freddie Highmore act. Unfortunately, he's gone through the bulk of the movie, replaced by a CGI Minimoy with Highmore's voice-over. If you really want to see a family film featuring kids getting shrunk and having adventures in the back yard, you'd do better to re-watch Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, which transcended its inherent sappiness and also managed some significant technical achievements.