NOW IN THEATERS! 2023 has been crammed with subpar animation efforts. Disney/Pixar’s fare may look fantastic, but the dearth of originality (read: desperate attempts at being woke) quickly becomes evident and increasingly annoying. Despite lacking the visual grandeur of its big-budget counterparts, Jim Capobianco’s stop-motion tale The Inventor proves superior in every other way, even down to its DIY little puppets. Perhaps we are as sick of pixels as we are of superheroes, slickness be damned. This tale, steeped in fascinating real history and boundless imagination, is sure to charm kids and adults – although it may also alienate those used to bombast and perpetual eye candy.
Based on events in the life of the great inventor and painter Leonardo da Vinci (Stephen Fry), the story starts off in Rome, Italy, at the dawn of the 16th Century. An aging, endlessly curious da Vinci, Mona Lisa in tow, is investigating, among a plethora of things, mysteries of the cosmos and the human body. He boldly claims that we are not the center of the universe and tries to define a “soul.” His desire to know everything “might be dangerous with the Pope” (Matt Berry), who has other concerns, like waging war with the French. When the Pope tells da Vinci to be “a good little artist,” he follows up with, “Even Michelangelo agrees, isn’t that right?” and Michelangelo sticks out his tongue at our hero. The Pope utilizes da Vinci to make war machines, but the genius demonstrates that peace may be the answer. A truce between the two countries is announced.
“…join the professor in his quest to build a new city and get to the root of some existential issues…”
Soon enough, our hero moves to France and meets the shallow and self-absorbed Francis I (Gauthier Battoue), as well as his sister, the lovely Marguerite (Daisy Ridley). Marguerite believes in da Vinci’s genius and, by extension, in progress and development. “It will be a new Rome,” she tells her skeptical royal sibling. She and her mom, Louise de Savoy (Marion Cotillard), join the professor in his quest to build a new city and get to the root of some existential issues: Why are we here? What is our purpose? What is the meaning of life? Of course, they also have to impress Francis I, who in turn has to impress his competitors, which leads to an entertaining final pseudo-showdown.
The Inventor is many things: a musical, a slapstick comedy, a piece of history visualized, a look into the mind of arguably the most famous and influential man who’s ever lived, and a reminder to focus on progress and the wonder of our universe. It’s about thinking big and outside the box, challenging the established norm, and continuously pursuing knowledge. Legendary composer Alex Mandel creates musical interludes out of, say, raindrops, clock chimes, and guitar strumming. In one of these interludes, da Vinci encounters all five human senses, personified. The tangent of our hero falling ill is handled gracefully. The fact that writer-director Capobianco juggles all these balls in the air and makes it all work is a testament to his skill (he wrote one of Pixar’s best features, Ratatouille).
The stop-motion may be far from Pixar’s standards of animation. It’s charming in its own modest way (it ain’t Laika), but the simplistic character design is made up for with energy and creativity. Whether all the cadavers, complex inventions, existential musings, themes of progress and censorship, and politics will alienate the wee ones remains to be seen. But, again, at least the film is not pandering. The Inventor is charming and modest but also honest and true, a rarity these days. Hurry up and check it out before Gen Z cancels Leonardo da Vinci for being a misogynist.
"…charming in its own modest way..."