The bucolic wonder buried in Luc Besson’s “Arthur and the Invisibles” has been snuffed out by this alienating and dislikable animated film. As overproduced and acrid as Besson’s “The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc” and “The Fifth Element,” this adventure tale of a lad who enters a subterranean world haplessly blends live-action and visually repellent computer-animated work. Dubbed French version is Gaul’s fifth-largest opener ever, but the $80 million pricetag will prove a huge obstacle given a likely yawner Yank bow in its English-language version Jan. 12 after a Dec. 29 Oscar-qualifying run.
The sources and ideas that are borrowed, copied or stolen here include the tales of King Arthur to “The Matrix Reloaded,” “The African Queen,” “Star Wars” and “The Wizard of Oz.” Script, based on Besson’s French tome “Arthur et les Minimoys” (which spawned three sequels), apes the Joseph Campbell hero myth template that’s become a bible for Hollywood’s current generation — and offers proof the template is exhausted.
In a weird coincidence, story elements sometimes match the recent “The Ant Bully,” while live-action lensing (by Thierry Arbogast, favoring wide-angle focal lengths) echoes the same technique in Terry Gilliam’s “Tideland,” also dwelling on a kid, a big house and the outdoors.
Opening, set in 1960, thrusts auds rudely into the rambling Connecticut home of young Arthur’s (Freddie Highmore) kindly grandmother (Mia Farrow). Arthur is obsessed with the illustrated diary of African travels penned by his grandfather Archibald (Ron Crawford), who vanished without a trace four years earlier. Also absent, for reasons never made clear, are Arthur’s parents (Penny Balfour, Doug Rand), who phone their son from a distant city on his birthday. Similarly unexplained is why Arthur and his folks are Brits, while his grandfolks are Yanks.
Reality knocks on the door when a ruthless developer (Adam LeFevre) presents deep-in-debt granny with papers making him the property owner. Arthur realizes that if he’s able to retrieve a cluster of rubies his grandfather’s diary claims is somewhere in the land of the tiny Minimoys (who actually live underground just outside the house), his granny can buy back her home.
Via grandpa’s tiresomely detailed instructions, and with the aid of African tribesmen who suddenly appear on the night of a new moon, Arthur is able to descend into the “seven kingdoms” of the Minimoys. Arthur himself must pass through a metallic iris that transforms him into a minuscule kid with punkish hair, and then is brought to the court of the king (Robert De Niro).
Transition is grating and annoying on multiple levels. First, dialogue (already plentiful) goes into overdrive, and is encumbered by hip sarcasm — suggesting that while the humans above are living in 1960, the folks below are in post-2006. Animation of the slightly feline Minimoys (featuring small, pointy noses and Mr. Spock ears) is flat and rigid, with extremely uneven synching of English voices to mouths. One can only imagine the odd effect in other languages in which the film is dubbed.
Failing to warn the court — and oh-so-cool Princess Selenia (Madonna) — that their realm is in danger of being bulldozed, Arthur ends up helping his new allies in a fight against insectoid invaders. Arthur, Selenia and cohort Betameche (Jimmy Fallon) venture into the lair of evil lord Maltazard (David Bowie), who has control of the rubies.
Action takes shape as a predictable string of adventures and near-misses through a forest of grass, and the final confrontation with Maltazard can’t come too soon. Action is overly complicated by devices large and small, making it hard to believe younger children will put up with the talkfest for long. Denouement in a return to live-action amounts to a rote afterthought.
Highmore and Farrow display some sparks of odd-couple interest, but Farrow especially seems out of her element as a grandmother. Voices rarely match up well with specific characters, with the exceptions of Madonna and Bowie, in magnificent form. Having African-Americanthesps Snoop Dogg and Anthony Anderson voice creatures that are basically humanoid monkeys shows poor taste.
Besson’s promise to retire from directing after this film (his previous “Angel-A” has yet to open Stateside) will strike some as timely. Typical of the pic’s strident tone is a dreadfully conceived Eric Serra score.