Following his adventures in Arthur and the Minimoys (2007), young Arthur (Freddie Highmore) is living happily in the countryside with his grandmother (Mia Farrow) and grandfather (Ron Crawford), whilst learning life lessons from the African tribesman now living in his backyard. While his fretful mother (Penny Balfour) and fussy father (Robert Stanton) are anxious to return to the city, Arthur receives a message from the microscopic kingdom of the Minimoys, one that simply reads: “help!” Using his magic telescope-cum-transportation device, Arthur returns to the Minimoys realm as his punk-haired pixie alter-ego, only to find his beloved Princess Selenia (voiced by Selena Gomez) is held hostage by the villainous Emperor Maltazard (Lou Reed). Aided by plucky, pint-sized Prince Betameche (Jimmy Fallon), Arthur outwits his old adversary, but Maltazard is ejected through the magic telescope into the human world. Now human sized, he sets out to enslave Arthur’s hometown.
While indifferently received by the English audience, the original Arthur adventure was a big hit across France and other foreign territories where the children’s books co-created by Luc Besson and illustrator Patrice Garcia are equally popular. Happily this success led Besson to break his retirement and return with not one, but two sequels mixing live action with fanciful computer animation. In fact, Arthur and the Great Adventure is a re-edited English version combining Arthur and the Revenge of Maltazard (2009) and Arthur and the War of Two Worlds (2010). Condensing both movies has left some plot points hard to follow including a handful of new characters either mentioned or introduced then abruptly removed from the action. Nevertheless, Besson’s boundless imagination, witty dialogue, and exuberant pace will win you over.
Drawing upon his fascination with North African culture and interest in ecological issues, Besson weaves an endearing allegory on how all living things need to be nurtured and encouraged, and brings the microscopic wonderland of the Minimoys vividly to life. An array of elaborate beasts and crazy contraptions are rendered in intricate and charming detail thanks to Garcia’s outstanding designs and the spellbinding colours conjured by Besson’s regular D.P., Thierry Arbogast. The script has a pleasing streak of eccentricity, notably in its treatment of Maltazard. His first port of call upon entering the human realm is the plastic surgeon’s. He emerges as a stitch-faced, moustache twirling weirdo styled after vintage comic book hero Mandrake the Magician, but townsfolk still recoil from what they perceive as the Devil incarnate. Besson parallels Maltazard’s relationship with his oafish son Darkos (Iggy Pop) with that between Arthur and his father, underlined by a sly gag wherein Darkos disguises himself as that ultimate oedipal nightmare figure: Darth Vader.
Swapping one Seventies rock icon for another, Lou Reed takes over from David Bowie as the voice of Maltazard, but delivers a rather flat performance. Other luminaries from the music industry pop up in unexpected roles: Snoop Dogg returns as streetwise Max, Iggy Pop plays loveable lug Darkos and listen out for will.i.am and Stacy Ferguson a.k.a. Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas. Their presence is part and parcel with the oddly anachronistic environment Besson creates, wherein the surface world is a retro-Fifties country idyll bathed in honeyed tones while parts of the subterranean kingdom are neon-lit hives full of hustlers, Rastafarian imps and gangster rappers. As before such elements sit a little uneasily beside the fresh-faced wonderment of the Minimoys' world.
In a sensible move Besson replaces Madonna with Disney teen sensation Selena Gomez, removing the queasiness from Arthur’s romance with Princess Selenia. Gomez brings her trademark sassiness to the role, although it remains a mystery why Selenia has to be in such a stroppy mood, twenty-four seven. Some of the set-pieces (e.g. a breathless pursuit aboard a toy train, a neat sequence where camouflaged tribesmen ambush Maltazard, an aerial chase involving flying ladybird taxi cabs) are outstanding and things get especially fun once the film morphs into a retro-Fifties creature feature complete with small town terrorised by giant bugs. Towards the end there is one oddly unsettling moment where Iggy Pop croaks a creepy cover version of Bowie's "Rebel, Rebel” over the closing credits. Try not to have nightmares, kids. Aside from that this is another lively and charming children’s adventure.