Sunday, February 11, 2007

Book Review: Arthur and the Invisibles

This review brought to you by The Society for the Prevention of Luc Besson Writing Metaphors (SPLBWM). Donations accepted.

Arthur and the Invisibles Movie Tie-in Edition by Luc Besson. Translated by Ellen Sowchek. HarperEntertainment: 2006. ISBN: 0-06-122726-9. This book combines the text of Arthur and the Minimoys and Arthur and the Forbidden City.

In the near future, we're going to have another reviewer who will do children's literature and movies. But he's not with us yet, meaning I could spare him from this assignment. I took this up under the naive assumption that the book is always better than the movie. Boy, I was wrong in this case. The absence of Freddy Highmore's redeeming presence weighs heavily on this atrocious novel.

"Perhaps the magical jack-fire would make him so confused that things would start to make sense again," Luc Besson writes on page 199 of this turkey. Perhaps that's a hint to readers to shoot up some magical jack-fire of their own to make sense of this book. If, and only if, you are really into kid lit, this is worth looking at just because it's a well-known title. Otherwise, it's worth recycling.

In our review of the movie, I lamented that the film had good material poorly used. The good material is still there in the books, but it's hard to find because Luc Besson has covered it with a heavy layer of bad writing. Granted, he's better known as a film-maker than novelist, but he should have handed this off to someone more capable.

The plot is almost identical to the film, which was apparently in production long before the books came out. Arthur's grandfather, an engineer who worked in Africa before World War II, has disappeared mysteriously from his American home, leaving behind a bereaved wife and ten-year-old grandson. An evil landlord has come for the property, and Grandma can't pay the bills. Grandpa got some rubies from an African tribe and hid them somewhere in his garden, but no one knows where. Not a problem: Grandpa transplanted an entire civilization of half-inch-tall people to that same garden in order to protect the rubies. Arthur has to solve a number of riddles to unlock some magic and shrink down to join the Minimoys on a race to find the rubies and, while he's at it, stop evil king Maltazard from taking over the Minimoy lands and destroying their civilization.

I assumed it was merely negligence on the part of the movie-makers that we never learned how or why the various African peoples, especially the Minimoys, made it from Africa to New England for this adventure, but there's no explanation in the book, either. I guess Besson is counting on his young audience to have a poor knowledge of geography.

Besson is one of those literary amateurs who thinks he has to explain every character's emotion to make sure you get it, and the prose is laden with cliched metaphors. This looks like the product of a writing assignment for a middle school English class. It's easier to endure and even quite funny if you read the metaphors literally. "Grandma melted like snow in the sun" (p. 4) makes an amusing image, but my favorite is "His teeth felt like they were floating" (p. 207), which comes after Arthur receives a hard hit to the face. We can probably blame this on the translator; I'm sure it's okay in French, but in American slang, "his teeth were floating" means he had to go to the bathroom.

In the religion department, religion gets a reasonably good depiction, though it's not the center of attention. There are one or two tangential but positive biblical references. The Minimoys are apparently polytheistic, and they have a major religious text called, of all things, The Great Book of Ideas, which is full of proverbs including, "The smaller the nail, the more it hurts when it is in your foot" (p. 386), which doesn't even make sense. We are expected to believe this book was responsible for reforming and improving Minimoy society, sort of the way Dinotopia is kept in check by gems like "One drop raises the ocean." Most of the characters are religious to some degree, and a deus ex machina always appears just as a hero is having a faith crisis or a villain is gloating. Maybe not realistic, but pleasant enough.

The morality, too, is generally good. Honesty, justice, bravery, and honor are held in high regard, as is a convoluted Minimoyan form of chastity--there's no mention of sex, but there are some elaborate rules about kissing. That brings us to the book's most uncomfortable issue, the little romance Besson has going between Arthur and the Minimoy princess Selenia. It was reasonably cute in the movie, but the book takes it a lot further. The movie explains, or seems to explain, that Arthur is transformed into an adult Minimoy when he shrinks and enters their world. The novel has a different take: he's a Minimoy, but he's still ten; it's just that as Minimoys reckon things, ten-year-olds are adults. Selenia is ten years old, too. Having just met, and having known each other for all of two days, these two are talking seriously about marriage. And that's not all: They are married by the end of the novel.

Even I have limits. He's ten, for crying out loud! When he's twenty, thirty, forty, how is he going to feel about being married to a miniature elf he can only visit once a year? Couldn't Besson have at least made Arthur, say, fifteen or sixteen? He still could have cast Highmore in the movie, who was actually fourteen when he played the role. I haven't read enough kid lit to know if this is a growing trend, but I can say that Philip Pullman put a decidedly distasteful and sexually suggestive kid romance in His Dark Materials, but that series manages to be disgusting on a number of levels.

Some movie reviewers suggest the film is more appropriate for junkies than kids due to its psychedelic, incomprehensible visuals. The novel might be appropriate for more literary stoners. It's full of surreal and illogical situations--the same ones in the movie--but on top of that, you get Besson's psychedelic writing. Get a load of this (p. 287):

Time stood still. Bees drew hearts with honey in a sky where carnations rained down. The clouds held hands around them, and an orchestra of thousands of birds drowned the sky with beautiful melody.

Whoa, man. Awesome trip. Hit me again.
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