There’s nothing like an overly-complicated kid’s movie to make you feel like an absolute moron. There are so many things to like about Arthur and the Invisibles, but at a certain point, I felt like I lost the plot. Either I was too busy trying to identify the famous voices to catch the finer details, or the movie would benefit from more linear storytelling.
At the outset, Arthur and the Invisibles is an enchanting little film. Arthur (Freddie Highmore) is an imaginative ten-year-old boy who lives his Granny (Mia Farrow). He’s perfectly adorable in his English schoolboy earnestness, and Granny’s no slouch herself. She does what she can to make things fun for Arthur, despite a rather lonely existence in the country.
Much of Arthur’s time is spent reading his grandfather’s old notebooks, which detail his discoveries as an explorer. Then, bursting with inspiration, Arthur heads outside with his dog to do some exploring himself. It’s an ideal situation for any kid, but trouble arises when the bank comes to call. It seems Granny is losing the house, and simply doesn’t have the money to save it. While she wrings her hands and sells what she can to bring in a bit of income, Arthur starts thinking big. What about those old treasure maps in the attic? What if he could find his grandfather’s treasure and save the house? It might be crazy, but it’s certainly worth a try.
After some careful calculations, Arthur realizes that the treasure, the civilization his grandfather discovered, and possibly Grandfather himself are all out in the yard—they’re just really, really small! With the planets in perfect alignment, Arthur crosses over to the land of the Minimoys, and turns from live action Freddie Highmore into computer animated Freddie Highmore. There he meets the King of the Minimoys (Robert DeNiro), and sets off with Princess Selenia (Madonna) and Betameche (Jimmy Fallon) to find the treasure, defeat some bad guys, and save the kingdom… or something. I’m not entirely sure what the Minimoys are up to, but they make pleasant traveling companions for Arthur.
For the first 20 minutes or so, I found myself reflexively rolling my eyes every time Selenia spoke. As if Madonna doesn’t have weird enough inflection in real life—do we really need her voicing cartoons? The rest of the cast, however, is fantastic. David Bowie is deliciously menacing as Maltazard (naturally), but there are a few surprises as well. I spent the entire movie trying to identify Jason Bateman (whose voice I would surely recognize in a dark cave at the farthest corner of the earth), and simply could not. Were the hundreds of hours I spent watching The Hogan Family worth nothing?! The extra features reveal that he voices Darkos, easily one of the creepiest characters in the film, and someone who sounds most like a wild, slobbery John Lithgow creation. Jason, is there any end to your abilities? Emilio Estevez also makes a welcome appearance as Ferryman. He’s been off the radar for so long I could hardly believe my ears, but with that warm, unmistakable voice and goofy sense of humor, he’s a natural at voice work. Harvey Keitel, Chazz Palminteri, and Snoop Dog also liven up the cast.
After much ado, Arthur locates his grandfather and helps the Minimoys (who are elfy little things) fight off Maltazard and his henchmen (who are buggy little things). He leaves their land a hero, and returns home with enough treasure to save the house and live happily ever after with his grandparents. Hurray! Arthur will finally get to know the man he looked up to for so many years, and Granny can spend the rest of her days with the love of her life! Best news ever, right? Freakishly, Granny takes one look at him and says something tantamount to, “Oh hi,” as if it’s normal to lose your husband in Africa and find him in the backyard.
There’s something less than satisfying about Arthur and the Invisibles, though I’m having a hard time putting my finger on it. The story is set in the Sixties, but the computer animation creates an anachronism. The film looks so modern and glossy (gorgeous, really) that it’s hard to believe the story takes place in the past, even during the live action sequences. And despite the lively characters and excellent voice work, the film loses momentum in the land of the Minimoys. By the time Arthur makes it home, it’s more of a relief to see the movie end than a triumph for our hero. With so much talent behind the film, it’s kind of a bummer.