With “Arthur and the Revenge of Maltazard” — the second installment in Luc Besson’s live-action/3D animated trilogy — the French writer-helmer-producer has managed to tone down some of the narrative schtick and overstuffed visuals that plagued the previous episode. But this sequel, offering another journey into an offbeat, minuscule world populated by Treasure Troll lookalikes and situated somewhere between “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” and “The Fifth Element,” is only marginally more entertaining, and still lacks sustainable appeal for either kids or adults. While a colossal local release should yield Gallic gold, the pic looks to flounder in Anglo territories.
Based on a concept (created by Patrice Garcia) that began with 2006’s “Arthur and the Invisibles,” and which since has spawned a series of books, comicbooks, videogames, product tie-ins and even a theme-park ride in France, the “Arthur” series nonetheless seems to be missing those elements needed to build a powerful franchise: originality, compelling characters and a storyline that’s both engaging and surprising.
Still, “Invisibles” grossed more than $100 million worldwide (though it eked out only $15.1 million Stateside), while a massive local marketing campaign involving Europe’s largest bank, and distribution in more than 800 French theaters, all but guarantees that parts two and three (which will be released in December 2010) will be seen — though primarily by younger Francophone auds.
Whereas the first film took great pains and a long time to explain how young Arthur (Freddie Highmore) used a tribal ritual to shrink himself into a pint-sized gnome, the sequel doesn’t waste a second introducing us to the tiny animated land located in the boy’s backyard. After this initial sequence, which showcases Besson’s more-is-less approach to 3D imagery and his predilection for action scenes that are cute rather than convincing, the live-action narrative takes over for several reels.
Set again for no apparent reason in 1960s Connecticut and featuring a pair of adventurous grandparents (Mia Farrow, Ronald Crawford), worrywart parents (Robert Stanton, Penny Balfour) and a clan of African tribesman dressed in laughable costumes and camping out in a nearby forest, the live portions are meant to propel the plot forward but wind up mostly slowing it down. Once the stage is set for Arthur’s return to the Invisibles’ kingdom, where he hopes to meet up with the cute but way-too-scantily-clad Princess Selenia (Selena Gomez), the film picks up speed but also enters some bizarre realms.
The first is a brand new territory called Paradise Alley, which is situated in a sewer and is something of a cross between “Total Recall’s” Venusville and South Los Angeles. Inhabited by Lilliputian shysters, streetwalkers and insect-mobiles with bouncing suspension, and backed by tunes like “Still D.R.E.” and “Just Boogie,” what’s supposed to be Besson’s fanciful take on hip-hop culture is mostly off-putting, and clearly not for kids. (The fact that rapper Snoop Dogg, this time accompanied by will.i.am, returns as a dreadlocked nightclub owner shows the lengths the filmmaker will go to in order to land a few jokes.)
The second is the story’s one genuine twist, which comes late in the game and involves the return and eventual “revenge” of baddie Maltazard. Voiced this time not by David Bowie but by Lou Reed (whose monotone New Yawk accent provides a welcome counterpoint to an altogether hyperactive cast), the pint-sized ruler becomes the pic’s one truly enjoyable character, with a cliffhanger guaranteeing more to come.
Animated sequences feel less crowded than in the previous film, and production designer Hugues Tissandier (“Taken”) offers some nifty sets that combine small-scale models with CGI backgrounds. But the garishly designed cartoon characters, captured by d.p. Thierry Arbogast’s harsh yellow and green lighting, are often hard on the eyes and not nearly as fun to watch as they should be.
Live scenes are mostly by the book, with passable performances and little cinematic inspiration, especially in the nostalgic, small-town Americana settings (actually shot in Normandy).
Pic’s greatest achievement is the smooth visual blending of scenes that shift constantly between the narrative’s real and imaginary worlds. Gallic house BUF and 3D director Pierre Buffin’s (“Silent Hill”) state-of-the-art digital rendering, especially in the latter stages, will likely remain the one memorable element in this otherwise forgettable universe.