11-year-old Arthur (Freddie Highmore) lives with his doting grandmother (Mia Farrow) in their idyllic country home. His grandfather, an intrepid explorer, has been missing for many years, but Arthur’s imagination is fired by the magic book he left behind, detailing a fantastical world of tiny, enchanted creatures called Minimoys. When nasty property developers threaten to seize Granny’s home, Arthur receives a visit from a Masai Chief (Jean Bejote Njamba) who reveals Arthur’s grandfather left numerous clues to a hidden treasure in the back garden. Transformed into an inch-high Minimoy, Arthur journeys to their kingdom where the King (Robert De Niro) teams him up with feisty Princess Selenia (Madonna) and perky Betameche (Jimmy Fallon). Together they must save the kingdom, find the treasure, and battle monsters working for the evil Maltazard (David Bowie).
Following his disastrous The Messenger: the Story of Joan of Arc (2000), visionary filmmaker Luc Besson took a six year sabbatical from directing, and somehow wound up becoming the French J.K. Rowling. Arthur and the Minimoys is based on a series of children’s books, co-created by Besson and illustrator Nicole Garcia, that are hugely popular in France. Indifferently received in English speaking countries, the film isn’t as dazzlingly inventive as The Fifth Element (1997), but it’s a bright, appealing adventure, superior to most CG fare aimed at children. With the honourable exception of Pixar, many of these films are so eager to engage adults, their storylines are overwhelmingly cynical, full of snide gags from Saturday Night Live comedians. Critics and academics who revel in post-modern disillusionment are only too happy to applaud. By contrast, Besson’s much derided film recreates the upbeat, aspirational world of classic children’s literature. It features a clever, likeably idealistic child hero, charming storybook visuals (from Besson’s regular cinematographer Thierry Arbogast), neat creature designs, and engaging touches like the friendly Masai, Mia Farrow’s glamorous Granny, a fight scene on a giant record player, and an infectious love of nature, science and exploration.
Freddie Highmore must be able to play wide-eyed little heroes in his sleep, but thankfully doesn’t. With spiky, bleached hair he is, like Bruce Willis and Christopher Lambert before him, an obvious alter ego for Besson himself. Robert De Niro is given too little to do as the King and David Bowie is somewhat restrained as Maltazard, but the normally annoying Jimmy Fallon is quite likeable as chirpy, pint-sized Betameche. There are unexpected cameos from Harvey Keitel, Emilio Estevez and Chazz Palmintieri, but the one piece of casting that really doesn’t work is Madonna. As drawn and animated, Princess Selenia is an appealing little pixie, but the husky voice of the material girl sounds all wrong. Not to mention her dodgy romance with pre-teen Arthur. Besson should have cast a child actress, although the French version features vocals from pop chanteuse Mylene Farmer.