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Secret world Tiny underground creatures help boy find Grandpa's rubies

I suppose it's no odder that Luc Besson, the writer/producer/director who has brought us such high-voltage action films as "La Femme Nikita" and "The Transporter," should author children's books than that Madonna should.

Still, it was a surprise to learn that the man responsible for "The Fifth Element" has produced two tomes for the 8 to 12 age group since the new millennium began. Those books, "Arthur and the Minimoys" and "Arthur and the Forbidden City," form the basis for Besson's "Arthur and the Invisibles," a film that, while not very original, nonetheless has its charms and will probably please the younger set.

Besson's Arthur is a 10-year-old British boy spending the summer at his grandparents' place in America -- a rambling old house in the country. His grandfather, a brilliant engineer who worked to improve the lot of many African tribes, suddenly went missing four years before, so Arthur is alone with Grandma and her dog.

When they're threatened with eviction by a ruthless developer, Arthur, hunting for the rubies Grandpa buried somewhere on the rambling property, is led to the world of the Minimoys, tiny creatures who live underground. They convert him into one of them so that he can enter their world and look for the rubies, taken by the evil Maltazard to his kingdom, Necropolis.

The film starts out with live action and changes to CGI animation when Arthur becomes a Minimoy. Besson's storytelling lacks the touches that make for a classic, but his film has its charms, starting with Freddie Highmore in the title role.

He's simply a delightful, likable boy, and Mia Farrow, whose acting can be very flat, is rather a lot of fun as Grandma. Where the film is strong is in details such as the old journal full of Grandpa's sketches and drawings that the two look through -- a gorgeous creation.

When Arthur finds his way to the secret world, it's through luck as much as through cleverness, another weak point; but what kid won't be thrilled when majestic African tribesmen appear to guide him there?

The animation is beautifully done, with the Minimoys so adorable and beguiling as to counter some negatives, namely: 1) Their king, yet another addition to the unfortunate modern cadre of buffoonish fathers, voiced by Robert De Niro, whom we now understand to perhaps have been raising cash for "The Good Shepherd" with his string of such roles; 2) His daughter, Princess Selenia, a rude, sharp-tongued, one-note Princess Leia clone voiced -- appropriately, perhaps -- by Madonna; 3) The confusing and, surprisingly, not terribly exhilarating action sequences, which also have "Star Wars" touches.

David Bowie is, as usual, superb voicing the evil Maltazard.

No crying could be heard at the preview, however, and the mother of a 5-year-old "Star Wars" fan said that he was fine.

This one's hardly a classic, but it's not the worst choice for a modern kid.



2 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

STARRING: Freddie Highmore, Mia Farrow and the voices of Madonna, Jimmy Fallon and Robert De Niro

DIRECTOR: Luc Besson

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes

RATING: Rated PG for fantasy action and brief suggestive material.

THE LOWDOWN: A 10-year-old boy enters the miniature world below his grandparents' yard in order to find a missing treasure.

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