(3.5 out of 4 starts)

Ehunne Geoise Ehunne Geoise “Freddie Highmore is Arthur in Luc Besson’s Arthur and The Invisibles.”

Ehunne Geoise “Freddie Highmore is Arthur in Luc Besson’s Arthur and The Invisibles.”

For many critics—and quite possibly many families as well—the idea of sitting through yet another animated feature film may sound like an unendurable prospect these days.  After all, there has been such a glut of animated product in the last couple of years—something like 16 such films in 2006 alone—that even the most devoted fan of such things may feel too sated to work up much enthusiasm to make it through yet another spectacle in which famous actors lend their voices to anthropomorphic woodland creatures or automobiles.

As a result, there’s the very real possibility that the latest such entry in the animation spate,  Arthur and the Invisibles, may wind up getting ignored by people willing to dismiss it out of hand as just being more of the same.  If this were to happen, it would be kind of a shame, because while the film itself may be far from perfect, it does contain one thing that most of its animated brethren lack: the fingerprints of a distinctive filmmaker in writer-director Luc Besson, the creator of such culty pop fare as The Fifth Element, La Femme Nikita, and Léon (AKA The Professional).  It is this singular vision that gives the film the kind of personal touch that allows it to stand out from the crowd.

As the film opens (in live-action), Arthur (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Freddie Highmore) is a lonely little boy who has been left on an isolated farmhouse in the care of his loyal and loving grandmother (Mia Farrow) who fills his head with stories about his grandfather who mysteriously went missing three years earlier, and the magical lands and people that Granddad supposedly encountered over the years, including the Minimoys, a race of extremely tiny, elf-like creatures who live just underneath the garden out back.

Alas, evil bankers are ready to foreclose on the farm and put Arthur and his grandmother out on the street unless she can come up with a large sum of money in 48 hours.  To stop this, Arthur uncovers a series of codes left by his grandfather that will allow him to journey to the land of the Minimoys and recover a cache of rubies that have been there hidden.

Once he arrives (and the film switches to animation), Arthur discovers that the rubies are in the possession of the fearsome Maltazard (a perfectly-cast David Bowie in what could be an homage to his role in the cult favorite Labyrinth), a former Minimoy who has turned against the brood as revenge for long-ago suffered inflictions.  When feisty Princess Selenia (Madonna), the daughter of the aging and benevolent King (Robert De Niro), decides to set off on a journey to stop Maltazard once and for all, Arthur volunteers to come along as well, and the two are joined by Selenia’s silly younger brother, Betameche (Jimmy Fallon).

Ehunne Geoise “Princess Selenia (Madonna) is one of the Invisibles in Luc Besson’s Arthur and The Invisibles.”

Ehunne Geoise “Princess Selenia (Madonna) is one of the Invisibles in Luc Besson’s Arthur and The Invisibles.”

Along the way, the three undergo many perilous adventures and encounter a variety of strange creatures while trying to simultaneously prevent Maltazard’s diabolical plot to destroy the Minimoy world once and for all—a plot that Arthur himself has accidentally set into motion—and discover the rubies in order save Arthur’s world back home in the ta-dah! nick of time.

On the surface, the idea of Besson—the man whose past efforts at reconciling the seemingly incompatible genres of elaborate American action extravaganzas (the kind best represented by Spielberg and his various acolytes) and glossy French auteurist exercises (such as the various creations of Jean-Jacques Beineix and Leos Carax) have seen him revered and reviled in equal measure—doing an animated children’s film may sound as either the daftest move in a career filled with daft moves or a craven effort to come up with his own money-spinning franchise in the manner of Harry Potter tales or The Chronicles of Narnia.

However, those who have studied Besson’s work in depth over the years will be surprised to discover that instead of being just a soulless and anonymous piece of product, Arthur and the Invisibles, based on a series of children’s books penned by Besson himself, is a surprisingly personal work, and the change in genre allows him to deploy his obsessions in new and intriguing ways.

Nearly all of Besson’s films involve children—either literally (such as Natalie Portman in Léon, or Milla Jovovich as the newborn savior in The Fifth Element or Joan of Arc in The Messenger) or metaphorically (Anne Parillaud’s killer waif in La Femme Nikita, Jean Reno’s milk-drinking hitman in Léon, or the Bruce Willis tough-guy character in The Fifth Element who is still nagged around-the-clock by his mother)—who find themselves charged with saving the world in one way or another as their passage into maturity and who manage to save both the day and themselves thanks to their essential purity and innocence in the face of unspeakable evil, often personified by Gary Oldman. 

The aspect of Arthur and the Invisibles that sticks out the most is the same one that has come to dominate all of Besson’s previous work—the palpable sense of giddy joy that he patently feels toward the art of filmmaking that is evident in every frame—if the world of film really is the greatest electric train set a kid ever had, as Orson Welles once said, then Besson is the ultimate embodiment of someone who found that train set under his Christmas tree and never grew tired of the toy.