It was while watching Luc Besson’s tres bizarre “Arthur and the Invisibles” that a certain oxymoronic phrase kept repeating in my head: “French family film.” Just doesn’t seem right, does it? Much like “Italian democracy” or “German day care.”
To be sure, there’s something supremely askew about this live action/animated tale of a plucky lad who endeavors to save the family farm by joining forces with a race of microscopic elves. Using a French crew and an Englishspeaking cast, Besson, director of “The Fifth Element” and “La Femme Nikita,” has created the sort of spastic, convoluted European co-production (think “The NeverEnding Story”) more likely to find devotees in bong-waterstained dorm rooms than movie theaters full of little kids.
British child actor Freddie Highmore is all mischief and moxie as Arthur, neglected by his parents and sent to live with his granny (Mia Farrow) on the Depression-era American prairie. Arthur is fascinated by stories of his grandfather, an adventurer who once built aqueducts in Africa but has recently disappeared from the farm. Of particular interest to Arthur is his grandfather’s discovery of the Minimoys, an enchanted race of what appear to be minuscule glam rockers, depicted in the old man’s dusty journal.
When villainous creditors come to take possession of the farm, Arthur leaps into action, determined to fi nd a fortune in African rubies stashed somewhere on the property. Highmore seems over-coached by Besson; while heroic, the kid also comes off as something of a Ritalin case.
“As long as I live and breathe, they’re not gonna get this house!” he huffs. Okaaay, man. Easy. To fulfi ll his mission, Arthur will have to make contact with the Minimoys, who live in subterranean bliss in a nearby garden. Moreover, he will have to shrink himself down to their size, which he does, with the help of four large Bushmen and an antique telescope. (If this is getting too weird for you, feel free to skip ahead.)
Long story short, Arthur fi nds himself transformed into a purplehaired, androgynous sprite and welcomed into a primitive, computer-animated kingdom ruled by a kindly, white-haired gnome (voiced by Robert De Niro). To retrieve the rubies, Arthur will strike out into the wilderness with the shapely Princess Selenia (Madonna) to confront the evil lord Maltazard (David Bowie). There will be “Star Wars”-style dogfi ghts, “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”-style microscopic mishap and, perhaps a bit too literally, a scene where Arthur pulls a magical sword out of a rock.
Adapted from a series of children’s books that Besson wrote himself, “Arthur and the Invisibles” has the nonsensical, derivative quality of a movie-marathon fever dream, complete with hoary one-liners. It all comes to a weirdness climax when Arthur and Selenia break bread with a race of miniature Rastafarians whose super-tight codpieces leave nothing to the imagination, then hop on a turntable and boogie like Uma Thurman and John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction.” As the French say: “Oh, mon Dieu.”