A few years back, prolific populist French filmmaker Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, Leon) "retired." The plan was to sit back, produce and write, and basically avoid the rat race that was the international motion picture business and the warts and all battles he had to fight. With his final two films - the live action Angel-A and the combo CG fantasy Arthur and the Invisibles, he bid goodbye to the limelight and resolved himself to a place behind the scenes. One of the reasons was the rash reception the latter film received in the West. While the rest of the planet got Besson's preferred cut of Arthur (complete with ...and the Minimoys as part of the label), The Weinstein Company eviscerated it before release, citing poor focus group reaction to the fantasy's frilly love story. Besson was livid. Three years later, he decided to return to the director's chair to complete his planned Arthur trilogy. While new distributor Fox maintains many of the Americanized version's viable faults, these direct to DVD sequels seem much more in tune with Besson's vision - for better and for worse.
With a few voice work cast changes and a slightly more cartoonish bent, the two films that make up the rest of this triptych all take their material from Besson's own books. That's right, just like the sci-fi folly of Element (great to look at, a nightmare to make sense of), Arthur's adventures come from the filmmaker's own literary efforts. The first film combined the initial two books, while these cover the last pair. The storylines involved are as follows:
Arthur and the Invisibles 2: The Revenge of Maltazard (Score: **1/2) - still smarting from his defeat by Arthur, Maltazard devises an evil plan to get the human boy back down into the world of the Minimoys. Then, he will use the teleportation device/system that Arthur has access to and transport himself up to the planet's surface.
Arthur and the Invisibles 3: The War of the Two Worlds (Score: ****) - with Arthur still shrunk down to less than a millimeter and stranded among the Minimoys, Maltazard runs ramshackle all over his town. With giant mosquitoes threatening the populace, the boy must find a way to save the day as well as his beloved Princess Selenia's kingdom.
There have been a few changes in the world of Arthur and his garden variety Minimoy pals in the last few years. Gone are talents like Madonna, David Bowie, Jason Bateman, and Robert DeNiro. In their place are Selena Gomez, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and...well, it really doesn't matter. For his part, Besson would argue that any replacement voice work is the decision of a US studio system trying to micromanage a hit out of what is basically a wistful work of visual wonder. Logic would dictate that, where at first you don't succeed, perhaps give up. Indeed, with Pixar pumping out the perfection and other studio subcontractors like Blue Sky delivering the rot in Rio, something so very European as the Arthur efforts just can't compete. Oh sure, they're inventive and engaging, filled with a kind of pixie dust imagination that seems perfect for capturing the kiddies' attention, but Besson is also a very forceful and fussy filmmaker. He creates doilies where a simple throw will do. He mans epics where scope overpowers storytelling and busyness baffles the intent.
This is obvious when watching Parts 2 and 3 back to back. The latter uses an intriguing narrative gimmick - the statuesque CG Maltazard running around the live action world - to keep things fun...and more importantly focused. The former, unfortunately, takes place mostly in the Minimoy's world, and it's in this aggravating example of art direction OD where the sequel just stalls. For the most part, Besson understands this. He keeps the live action material loose and fancy free, allowing someone like Mia Farrow (as a weirdly sympathetic grandma) a lot of leeway. But in the tightly monitored make believe department, it's all haphazard Hellsapoppin' anarchy. There is a sequence involving Arthur's rescue of Selenia's brother Prince Betameche that imagines a Minimoy city as part Las Vegas, part Element's New York City. Then, it goes ape spit. Then, just to make matters that much more uncomfortable, Snoop Dogg returns as a Rastafarian creature whose lingo argues for some kind of indirect racism. With multiple chase scenes and a dicky tummy full of eye candy, Part 2 promises a parade, and then delivers one on crack.
Part 3 is the better film. It flows better, does a better job of handling its various colliding narrative facets. Everyone has a clear goal here - Arthur's parents hope to find him, Arthur's grandparents hope to help him, Maltazard wants to control the world and our heroes want to stop him. No silly subtexts or unnecessary asides. Even the slapstick involving a pair of clueless cops pays off in the end. Sure, the finale finds a Deus Ex Military Machina solution coming out of left field, and the arrival of the villain's long thought dead son Darkos fails to have the necessary emotional or comic tug, yet the movie still works. We enjoy the CG effigy of Maltazard wandering around Besson's idea of an early '60s small town (Marty McFly's Hill Valley looks like Chicago's Loop by comparison). The giant bug attack earns the necessary amount of "wow." While it lacks the kind of mythology mess that crushed the first two films, Part 3 is not perfect. It can get lost in its own lunatic ferocity, once again highlighting a Besson weakness. Still, for those who loved the first film, or are curious to see what the director has been up to since last he strayed into a Cineplex, these movies good. They're well meaning, if rather minor, entertainments.
With their big budgets and excessive production values, the direct to DVD Arthur titles (which did get a theatrical release worldwide) look very good: clean, crisp, and loaded with tiny details. The 2.35:1 anamorphic image is excellent, though one imagines it would look even better on Blu-ray. The animated sequences really pop, while the live action material has a slightly arch, artificial look. Together, they make for a first class transfer, if not necessarily a top shelf bit of amusement.
With their Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes, these movies also sound great. During the action scenes - which Besson excels at, by the way - we get lots of spatial and directional play among the channels. When the dialogue arrives, it is front and center and easy to understand. While the musical backdrop is a bit syrupy and the use of modern songs apparently part of a misguided marketing ploy, the overall presentation is polished and professional.
Within the 'everything nominal is eventually nominated' mindset of the Internet, one imagines a Messageboard conversation of the future going a little something like this: "I LOVE the Arthur/Minimoy films. SO much better than Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter." Right. To each his or her own, but make no mistake about it - Luc Besson came back because he believes in the power of his recently written legends. While earning a cautionary Recommended rating, be warned. You really should see the original Arthur and the Invisibles before diving in here. Yes, there will be elements in all three films that will make your spine curl and your sense of social (and racial) propriety wince. Besson is not a subtle filmmaker and there are in no way subtle films, and it does take a lot of computer generated fluff to finally get to the good stuff. Still, Arthur's final two adventures are not half bad. Of course, that means they're only half good.
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