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Appropriate for kids but better suited for adults, this stop-motion look at the latter days of Leonardo da Vinci is a paean to the power of free thought and creativity.
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You might look at the stop-motion animation and characters in “The Inventor” and think this looks like something from old TV specials — “Frosty the Snowman” or “The Year Without a Santa Claus.” Although the action is more fluid, the lines are simple, the colors vivid, the people’s eyes resembling little dots of pitch.
The beard of the main character, Leonardo da Vinci, looks like it was literally made out of yarn.
This could you lead you to believe this film is primarily intended as appealing to kiddies. It’s not. While rated PG and perfectly suitable for the entire family, it’s really more adult fare. In looking at the last years of da Vinci spent in France, it’s a lovely paean to the power of free thought and creativity.
During our current age of people being canceled for bad tweets or John Green books being moved in the public library away from the people they were intended for, the film is also a timely lesson about the importance of free expression, and how the powers-that-be of every epoch seem motivated to tamp it down.
“The Inventor” is written and directed by Jim Capobianco, an Oscar nominee (for the screenplay of “Ratatouille”) and animation veteran. (Pierre-Luc Granjon served as co-director.) This is essentially a feature film version of his 2009 short, “Leonardo,” about the waning days the Italian master.
Leonardo is represented as a kindly, portly figure with a long beard and an omnipresent hat that looks like a little chimney atop his ahead. Voiced by Stephen Fry, he’s brilliant but also a little distracted, and somewhat naive about the motives of the powerful benefactors he relies upon. He’s also quite aware of the criticism that he always has so many projects going on he never finishes any of them.
At the opening of the story he works in Rome under the tight thumb of the Pope, (Matt Berry), a gigantic figure who more likes Kingpin from the “Daredevil” comics/show than God’s humble servant. He wants to toss Leonardo on the heretic pyre for his obsession with dissecting human bodies, but is protected by a young cardinal who defends his right to investigate the eternal mysteries of the universe.
Circumstances change, and Leonardo is swayed by the offer of France’s young king, Francis I (Gauthier Battoue), to move there and work under his patronage. Leonardo packs up all his marvelous inventions and papers, bringing along the two loyal servants who are like sons to him, the studious Melzi (Angelino Sandri) and non-speaking muscle Zaro.
At first things go well, as the king’s enthusiasm for discovery gives Leonardo great freedom to explore his desires, despite the influence of the Queen Mother, Louise of Savoy (Marion Cotillard), who wants to see all his inventiveness going toward creating weapons of wars or statues exalting the monarchy.
Leonardo even finds a kindred spirit in Princess Marguerite (Daisy Ridley), the king’s sister, who supports his idea to build an “ideal city” to be called Romorantin, where everything works in harmony and a complicated system of waterworks keeps everything humming.
Eventually the situation becomes less accommodating, as Francis grows obsessed with impressing his visiting fellow monarchs, Henry VIII or England (Daniel Swan) and Charles of Spain (Max Baumgarten), depicted as a pair of juvenile brawlers.
“There are three classes of people in this world,” Leonardo observes. “Those who see, those who see when they are shown, and those who do not see. When those who do not see are in power, which is often, they fear those who see.”
The animation is deceptively beautiful. The stop-motion sections seem very unadorned, but to illustrate the thoughts of the characters or dream sequences, traditional hand-drawn imagery takes over. Sometimes the two even combine in the same frame in thought bubbles, to gorgeous effect.
Leonardo is addressed as “maestro” or even “wizard,” as people recognize the magnificence of his art and contraptions, even if they are tempted to put them to their own use rather than appreciating them for what they are.
There’s one clever sequence where Leonardo admits to the pope that he could create weapons that would give them the advantage over the enemy, but it would only lead to an escalation of destruction as inventors like him dream up ever more creative ways to kill each other.
I think older children (10+) will appreciate “The Inventor,” though smaller ones may find it a little too esoteric to stay engaged. There are no fights and not a lot of action in the traditional sense of what we’re used to from animated films. There are a number of musical sequences (music by Alex Mandel) that carry the story forward rather than just stopping things for a little song-and-dance.
Ridley, best known for playing Rey in the “Star Wars” sequel trilogy, surprises us with a sprightly, almost ethereal singing voice.
If most animated movies today are toe-tapping pop tunes, “The Inventor” is classical music.