Shrinking 'Arthur's' appeal

Special to The Times

Featuring the eminently likable Freddie Highmore ("Charlie and the Chocolate Factory") as a daydreaming 10-year-old whose thoughts are filled with his grandfather's long-ago adventures in Africa, "Arthur and the Invisibles" begins as the kind of film you want to like, but quickly degenerates into a computer-generated mishmash.

Like Henry Selick's "James and the Giant Peach," "Arthur" starts out as a live-action tale with Arthur (Highmore) and his grandmother (Mia Farrow) facing eviction from their rural Connecticut homestead. In an effort to save the day, Arthur embarks on a quest to find the Minimoys (an African tribe of inch-high people who inexplicably live in Arthur's backyard) and retrieve a cache of hidden rubies. To that end, he deftly solves a series of puzzles left behind by his missing grandfather that allows him to shrink down and descend into the Minimoys' CG world.

The transition from Arthur's world to the Minimoys' is jarring on numerous levels. In "James and the Giant Peach," the title character bears at least a passing resemblance to the live-action actor. No such luck here as the Minimoyized version of Arthur, with his oversized eyes and spiky white hair, looks like a reject from a 1980s new wave band.

Director Luc Besson, best known for "La Femme Nikita" and "The Fifth Element," admits he knew nothing about animation before he started this project, and it shows.

Whereas the alien menagerie that populates "The Fifth Element" adds to the film's irreverence, the Minimoys' hodgepodge character designs are ill-conceived and disjointed -- a "Star Wars"-like alien (the evil Maltazard, voiced by David Bowie), a disturbingly emaciated Rastafarian (Snoop Dogg) and the curvaceous elf Princess Selenia (Madonna).

Given the plethora of musical talent, there's a conspicuous lack of musical numbers or original songs -- that is, until you realize the CG portion of the film was also voiced in French (the film was released in France last month as "Arthur et les Minimoys"), which may also explain why the English dialogue is frequently out of sync.

When the Minimoys aren't throwing around anachronistic banter (though the film is set in 1960, Selenia's sensibilities are contemporary high school), they're engaged in standard good-versus-evil adventure fare with a few mildly impressive set pieces thrown in. There's also an aerial battle against mosquito-mounted baddies that may engage younger audience members, but taken together, there's little in "Arthur" to evidence the seven years it took to put the project together.

"Arthur and the Invisibles." MPAA rating: PG for fantasy action and brief suggestive material. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. Exclusively at Mann's Beverly Center Cinemas, at Beverly and La Cienega boulevards, Los Angeles, (310) 652-7760.

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