Animation Features Movies

The Inventor

Directors – Jim Capobianco, Pierre-Luc Granjon – 2023 – US, France, Ireland – Cert. PG – 100m


Towards the end of his life, inventor Leonardo da Vinci goes to live in France under the patronage of the King – stop frame / drawn animation composite is out in the UK’s Vue cinemas on Friday, March 8th

Rome, Italy, 1516. Leonardo da Vinci (voice: Stephen Fry) happily shows off a giant optical system of magnifying glasses for observing the heavens to his assistant Francesco Melzi (voice: Angelino Sandri). Francesco retorts that Leonardo ought to be worried about the Pope who has spies everywhere (and sure enough, there are eyes watching from nearby peepholes). Leonardo’s other assistant, the hulking, mute Zoroastro sources corpses for him, on which the curious Leonardo performs dissections and studies what he finds through making drawings in his quest for find the animated spirit of man, a search which, in dreams and visions, often leads him into confrontation with a mysterious, gargantuan, dark-hooded figure.

The inventor is summoned to Pope Leo X (voice: Matt Berry) who wants to know, why can’t Leonardo just make pretty things? The arrival of a messenger whose helmet is half crushed by a cannonball leads Leo to suggest Leonardo fashion him machines of war. For use against the French. Armed with towering piles of paper which he projects like movie frames, the inventor shows the pontiff a series of proposed war machines which the enemy captures and then uses against Leo’s forces, a scenario Leonardo uses to suggest he instead create peaceful gifts to cement peace with the enemy. He later impresses King Francis I of France (voice: Gauthier Battoue) with a mechanical lion that sits and begs.

When his patron Giuliano de Medici (voice: John Gilkey) dies, Leonardo accepts Francis’ invitation to move to France, setting up in a castle where he meets the astute Queen Mother Louise de Savoy (voice: Marion Cotillard) and the friendly and inquisitive Princess Marguerite de Navarre (voice: Daisy Ridley). The latter will encourage him and protect him from the whims of the King, who, like Leonardo’s previous Lord and Master the Pope, is not the smartest of men. Francis is obsessed with having a statue built of himself and being able to show rival kings how powerful he is by parading armies and the like.

Leonardo persuades Francis to let him design the ideal city, but in Leonardo’s head this relates mainly to dissection and drawing of the human body in search of truth about The Meaning Of Life. Soon he is sending Zoroastro out in search of fresh corpses, hilariously confounding local gravediggers Jean (voice: John Gilkey) and Jeanne (voice: Jane Osborn) whose clients’ bodies due to be buried keep vanishing when the gravediggers backs are turned. The King, meanwhile, is starting to panic about the upcoming event to which he has invited both Charles V of Spain (voice: Max Baumgarten) and Henry VIII of England (voice: Daniel Swan).

Much of the production is rendered using stop-frame animation puppets, with heavily derivative character designs that you feel like you’ve seen before. Leonardo himself, in particular, recalls Mr. McHenry from hugely successful, 1960s, re-scripted and re-voiced French stop-frame import to Britain The Magic Roundabout (TV series, 1965-67, Serge Danot, writer Eric Thompson). The character’s being voiced by the ubiquitous Stephen Fry serves to make him feel still more familiar. The stop-frame work itself is nicely executed and a pleasure to watch.

Among the stop-frame characters, Pope Leo is an enormous figure seated on a huge throne with the diminutive Cardinal De Beatis (voice: Natalie Palamides) by his side doing much of the Pope’s thinking for him. The messenger with a cannonball on his head is a showstopper who might have walked straight out of Hieronymous Bosch’s then contemporary Dutch painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. Rival kings Henry and Charles are constantly getting into brawls which recreate drawn fight scenes from the pages of the Beano (or its French equivalent?) of fists, heads and feet caught up in a cloud of dust, physically rendered in 3D as something resembling cotton wool (of which material it might or might not actually be made). And towards the end, first an ill-suited Francis then a more comfortable Leonardo perform a play involving wire work / flying rigs in which they are dressed as suns.

Other episodes, such as Leonardo’s dream sequences as he searches for The Meaning Of Life and encounters the giant hooded figure, are rendered in pleasing, pastel shaded and drawn, traditional 2D animation. The pleasing, overall, leisurely pace flies in the face of much contemporary Crash! Bang! Wallop! CG-generated, Hollywood animation aimed at children with an alarmingly brief attention span – and is in keeping with the idea of someone at the end of their life when old age forces the speed of living to slow down from a made gallop to a gentle canter.

Overall, this is a nice, gentle, sweet little movie, strong on animation craft, and likely to be enjoyed by adults as well as their young children at whom it’s clearly targeted. Looking for a film to take young kids to for an afternoon? Look no further. A nicely understated, low-key treat.

The Inventor is out in Vue cinemas in the UK on Friday, March 8th.


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