Director Luc Besson is known for his striking visuals and his mash-ups of sentimental, even corny moments with intense, graphic violence. At his best, in films like The Professional and The Fifth Element, these juxtapositions work well. But here, in his first film for a family audience, it feels more like a collision. The combination of themes and tones comes across as uncomfortably jarring.
It begins in live-action, beautifully designed to look like traditional children’s book illustrations, with golden tones and intricate details. The characters, language, and behavior also have a timeless feel. Though it is set in the 1950’s, it could easily be taking place in the Depression, especially given the musty colonialism of the set-up. Even the main character’s inexplicable English accent contributes to the feeling that perhaps this is a forgotten classic from the same shelf as The Secret Garden or Wee Willie Winkie.
Arthur (Freddy Highmore of Finding Neverland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and his grandmother (Mia Farrow) will lose their home if they cannot find the treasure hidden by Arthur’s grandfather before he disappeared. The only chance is for Arthur to get help from the Minimoys, a community of very tiny creatures Arthur’s father brought from his travels, who live somewhere deep inside the back yard.
But as soon as Arthur finds the Minimoys, the live action turns into animation, the ungainly and distracting roster of star vocal talent steps in, the tone begins to go haywire, and the story begins to fall apart.
While the opening sequence is understated and reassuringly old-fashioned, the underground adventures are an unfortunate mixture of po-mo snark and potty humor (some just plain pot humor as well). There might be some way to put Robert DeNiro, David Bowie, Jimmy Fallon, Madonna, and Snoop Dogg into the same environment, but Besson hasn’t figure it out, and the voice talents all sound forced and unhappy.
The action sequences are sluggish. The quips are even more sluggish. There are jokes about the age of the character voiced by Madonna, which are weak. But then there is something of a love interest between Arthur and her character, which is downright creepy. The movie tries to appeal to children looking for fairy tales, teens looking for satire, and college kids looking for something trippy. The result is too snotty to be genuine, too sugary to be witty, too uneven to be worthwhile for any audience.
Parents should know that the film has a great deal of cartoon-style action violence. Characters use some schoolyard language. Arthur’s grandmother take sleeping drops and he increases her dose so she will not know what he is doing. Some audience members may be upset that Arthur’s parents do not make it home for his birthday. A strength of the movie is the portrayal of capable, courageous female characters.
Families who see this movie should talk about how children sometimes feel responsible for solving the problems of adults. What was the most important thing Arthur learned?