Helmer subbing Normandy for NY in 3-D kid pic

In his first time behind the camera since 1999, Luc Besson has started directing Mia Farrow and “Finding Neverland” star Freddie Highmore in his 3D and live action English-lingo kid’s feature “Arthur.”

Shooting began in Normandy Monday at an imitation American-style house, and will continue through to July. French countryside is meant to rep New York state.

Highmore plays Arthur, a little boy who turns to the help of the pixie-like Minimoys to help save his grandfather’s house. Farrow plays his mum. Madonna, David Bowie and Snoop Dogg provide voices for the animated characters.

Two years in the making and with a Cannes 2006 delivery date penciled in, the pic is budgeted at e65 million.

An adaptation of successful kids books penned by Besson, it also reps EuropaCorp’s first foray into the Hollywood-dominated world of big budget 3D animation.

The first “Arthur” tome was just released Stateside by Harper Collins.

“It is an extremely important project for us,” Besson’s Europacorp partner Pierre Ange Le Pogam told Variety Thursday. Exec said a couple of U.S. distributors have expressed an interest in the project during Cannes. Buyers will see the first footage of pic in Paris next month.

“It is an exceptional film because this is the first time a real director is putting his signature on an ambitious animation film. ‘Arthur’ will have Luc’s stamp on it.”

Four-year-old Europacorp has reached a cruising speed of 10-12 features a year and has successfully staked out a corner of the English lingo actioner market for itself. Company will have four English lingo pics distributed Stateside this year.

Based on its early B.O. performance the Morgan Freeman Jet Li starrer “Unleashed,” released last week by Focus Features on 1,950 prints, is on course to gross $25 million, bettering the distrib’s $18 million target.

“I’m very happy that Focus are going to make a lot of money with the film,” Le Pogam said.

‘Transporter’ sequel

The company is putting the finishing touches to “The Transporter 2,” with Jason Statham, Amber Valetta and Francois Berleand. EuropaCorp will give the pic a wide release in France starting Aug. 3, and Fox will release it in the U.S. in September, followed toward the end of the year by another Europacorp production, the Penelope Cruz-Salma Hayek starrer “Bandidas.”

Lions Gate will release the horror pic “High Tension” in June.

Europacorp’s Thai actioner “Ong Bak” will also come out in the States this year.

Around half of Europacorp’s pics are English lingo, with two or three big budget films every two years.

“We are committed to making films in France but we are interested in working with filmmakers and companies from all over the world. It’s not just about selling and doing business. It’s a passion,” said the exec at EuropaCorp’s luxury villa in the hills outside Cannes.

Company was hosting a press junket for Tommy Lee Jones’ in-competition “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” being screened tonight.

Gallic company has a number of irons in the fire on its development slate.

Depardieu in development

On home turf, Europacorp has teamed with Gerard Depardieu for two movies, the $12 million “Michou d’Auber,” a drama helmed by Thomas Gilou, and Xavier Giannoli’s “I Did It My Way,” in which the thesp will croon French popular songs.

Produced by Edouard Weil, with Europacorp co-producing, the Giannoli pic will start shooting next month. In the movie Depardieu plays a successful local singer in a provincial French town who falls for the charms of newcomer Cecile de France.

Europacorp is negotiating with a record company to release an album of songs from the movie.

“Michou d’Auber,” penned by Gilou and Jean Cosmos, is set during the Algerian War and tells the story of Michou, an Algerian boy who transforms the lives of a childless French couple who take him in. Inhouse production being handled by Europacorp’s Michel Feller will begin shooting in August.

Before that, lensing will get under way next month in London and Paris on the $16 million “Love and Other Disasters,” a co-production with David Fincher starring Brittany Murphy and Mathew Rhys and directed by Alek Keshishian (“Truth or Dare”).

In July or August shooting begins on the Brazilian $4 million-$5 million co-production “Federals,” currently being cast. Helmed by docu maker Eric de Castro, feature tells the story of four cops struggling to impose law and order in crime-ridden Brazilia.

Principal photography recently got under way in Montreal on “The Secret,” Gallic thesp Vincent Perez’ first English lingo helming project, starring David Duchovny with Lili Taylor and newcomer Olivia Thirlby. Pic produced by Besson and his film producer wife Virginie Silla is a supernatural thriller based on the 1999 Japanese film “Himitsu,” adapted by Ann Cherkis.

In Cannes, Le Pogam talked up sales on an array of post-production titles including Guy Ritchie’s “Revolver,” Dai Sijie’s love story “The Botanist’s Daughters,” and “Color Me Kubrick,” which stars John Malkovich in the dramatized true tale of a man who impersonated Stanley Kubrick, as well as Richard Berry’s “The Black Box.”

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