Pixar's latest rival: France

If the "enfant terrible" of Gallic filmmaking is making movies for "les enfants," big changes must be afoot in French cinema. Luc Besson, the director reviled by some fellow citizens for Paris-goes-to-Hollywood action films such as "La Femme Nikita," "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc," and "The Fifth Element," has entered the lucrative market of digital animation. His new pic, "Arthur and the Invisibles," about a boy who enters the miniaturized world of backyard creatures to save his grandparents' farm, and featuring the voices of Madonna, David Bowie, and Robert De Niro, opens nationwide Friday.

Already a hit in Europe, "Arthur" signals an important milestone in French animation: with a reported $80-million price tag, it's the first big-budget French export vying to compete with American animated features.

"What happened recently, in the last 30 years, is that the Americans are so good, between Walt Disney and Pixar," says Besson via telephone from Paris, where "Arthur" was filmed. "They are really big and good. It's hard from Europe – your country is so small – to feel the courage to try."

But "Why not?" Besson asked himself. So try he did.

"Arthur" marks the height of a new wave of French animation which began with Sylvain Chomet's 2003 sleeper, "The Triplets of Belleville." Eight feature-length cartoons were produced in 2005, France's biggest year on record. According to The Hollywood Reporter, France has at least a dozen more currently in development or production.

The US dominates the worldwide cartoon market, using its proven formula of family friendly plots, fuzzy animal characters, and name-brand voices. In trying to beat the Americans at their own game, Besson doesn't feel he has anything to prove. He knows France, like other rising-star countries in the field, such as England, Spain, Japan, and Korea, have their own visions to impose on the exploding art of animation.

"It will be different. We don't have the same money," says Besson. "The diversity of expression is our best ally."

Another ally is France's Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC). "The national strategy is to develop animation," says Serge Bromberg, artistic director of the Annecy International Animation Festival. "Animation is considered ... one of the favorite techniques for cinema in the future." The government provides direct financial assistance from the CNC and tax breaks for filmmakers.

The administration stands a good chance to recoup its investment. America has taught French producers that animation can be a moneymaker. With recent hits such as "Kirikou et les bêtes sauvages" ("Kirikou and the Wild Beasts"), France is even beating back the US hegemony. In 2005, homespun productions grabbed 15 percent of France's animated-film box office, up from 6 percent a year before.

But the US model has its pitfalls. For every "Cars," "Happy Feet," and "Ice Age 2" – all Top-10 grossers in 2006 – there are duds such as "Flushed Away" and "The Ant Bully." The kids market is clearly oversaturated with product. The real growth potential might be for animation aimed at adults, a genre for which France is particularly well suited.

"Today, no one has made a hit with adult animation. It's going to be a new field that's opening up," claims Christian Volckman, director of last autumn's animated sci-fi noir "Renaissance." In a nation where men unselfconsciously consume bande dessinée, or "BD" (comic books) with adult themes, and the biggest audience for a movie like "Shrek" was the 35-to-49-year-old demographic, more pictures like "Renaissance" should continue to thrive.

The question is whether French animated movies can do well overseas. For instance, the British-French coproduction "Pollux – Le manège enchanté" (aka "The Magic Roundabout") tanked on this side of the pond, even when retitled "Doogal" and redubbed with American talent.

"The biggest challenge for French animation is conquering the US and English-speaking market," says Rodney Figueiredo, a writer for "Animated Views," via e-mail.

All eyes will be watching the US bow of "Arthur and the Invisibles." Though Besson had claimed that he would focus exclusively on producing from now on, early box-office reports of the movie's huge success in France has persuaded him to turn the one film into a threequel.

"I don't take my adult films very seriously," says Besson. "I take kids very seriously."

If they take him seriously, Besson may never return from their invisible world.

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