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MOVIE REVIEW

The kingdom isn't magic in 'Arthur and the Invisibles'

Madonna gives voice to Princess Selenia in Luc Besson's fantasy. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Watching "Arthur and the Invisibles" is like sticking your head in a Gallic pinball machine: It's hectic, technically impressive, and your skull starts to pound after a while.

Directed by the one-time French film wunderkind Luc Besson ("La Femme Nikita") this part-live action/part-computer-generated fairy tale is based on Besson's two children's books, "Arthur and the Minimoys" and "Arthur and the Forbidden City," which in turn were mulched from pieces of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, and other writers with genuine skill. Besson seems to think knocking off a fantasy world is something anyone can do, but here's his movie to prove otherwise.

At least we have Freddie Highmore , the large-souled lad from "Finding Neverland" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," as resourceful young Arthur. He lives in a clattertrap country house with his fretful Granny (Mia Farrow), waiting for his explorer Grandpa (Ron Crawford) to return from his travels. The appearance of a condo-building meanie (Adam LeFevre ) with eviction papers leaves the two with 48 hours to find Gramps and his rumored stash of rubies.

Using clues the old man left behind, Arthur locates and transports himself to the land of the Minimoys, a tribe of people roughly the size of a Tic Tac who live in his back yard. On the journey, he's morphed into a Minimoy himself: a big-headed, wide-eyed CGI sprite. He looks like Billy Idol the Smurf.

Which makes sense, since Arthur's new love interest, the tough and unnervingly curvy Princess Selenia, speaks with the voice of Madonna. The singer drops the faux-British accent and does a perfectly fine job, but just thinking about the quasi-romantic scenes between the 14-year-old Highmore and the 48-year-old Madge makes me feel unclean.

Robert De Niro voices the Minimoy King, while Harvey Keitel plays his adjutant -- "Mean Streets" has never seemed so far away. Jimmy Fallon plays Selenia's bratty kid brother, while Snoop Dogg and Anthony Anderson voice ghetto elves (sorry, there's no other way to put it).

Most enjoyable is David Bowie as the chief villain, He Who Cannot Be Na -- I mean Maltazard. This character is an eerie visual presence with a long, tall head that suggests an Egyptian crown, and he'd be marvelous to look at if "Arthur and the Invisibles" stood still long enough.

Instead, the movie bing-bing-bings all over the place, repurposing fantasy novels, video games, Arthurian legends. Besson's grocery bill for all I know. Even the musical score has multiple-personality disorder, downshifting from a symphonic score into bar-band rock and promptly stalling.

The digital animation is sleek, luxuriant, and artfully done without quite making it over the hump to art. Anyway, the movie's most special effect turns out to be Highmore in his actual physical skin. Talking about his missing Grandpa early in the film, the actor quietly works his way into sorrow, bringing a tear first to his eye and then to ours. That's more magical than anything they dig up in the lawn.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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