'Le Grimoire d'Arkandias': Film Review

Marc Bossaerts
A little movie magic wouldn't have hurt

This French children's film stars popular comedian Christian Clavier as the red magician of the title

"It’s not by playing Harry Potter that we’ll solve this," says one the characters in Le Grimoire d’Arkandias, a French film supposedly filled with magic, whose pint-sized protagonists of course proceed to do exactly that -- or at least try to, for as much as the modest budget and perfunctory screenplay will allow them to.

Directed by Alexandre Castagnetti and Julien Simonet, the latter a co-writer on Castagenetti’s previous project, the more successful romantic comedy Stand by Love with Ludivine Sagnier, this children’s film opened in France just in time for the fall school holidays and has been posting OK numbers locally, opening ahead of Fury and Magic in the Moonlight. However, its mediocre execution makes it very unlikely it’ll display the kind of staying power needed to warrant an adaptation of parts two and three of Eric Boisset’s trilogy of Grimoire fantasy novels.

A grimoire is a book of spells or how-to manual for the creation of magical objects such as the invisibility ring that plays a large role here. The film’s precious metal band is fabricated by Theo (Ryan Brodie), a reed-thin, big-eared nobody at school with an acute fear of water ever since his diver father drowned a few years earlier. He loves to read about heroes in books and comics and he’s only got one friend: Bonaventure (Timothee Coetsier), or Bonav for short, who’s the short fat kid that most of these stories seem to use as visual and narrative shorthand for a child that’s an outcast.

The screenplay, written by the directors and Jean-Marie Poire and Natalie Carter, deviates at several points from the source material — notably with the introduction of a third character, punky tough girl Laura (Pauline Brisy), whose presence turns the straightforward brotherly camaraderie of the preteen boys into a triangle, with Bonav hopelessly and unilaterally in love with the leggy looker in what amounts to an occasionally amusing yet finally tiring running gag.

The film’s talky opening sets up all the elements by having Theo do an exhaustive (and exhausting) voice over that explains his world view, his childhood traumas and who his family and friends --um, make that friend -- are. His mother, who became chronically unemployed after she was suspected of stealing a small Van Gogh at work, is being forced out of the family home because she can’t afford the rent anymore. All this is explained so didactically that there’s an immediate and clear road map for the remainder of the film, with all the obstacles that will need to be overcome -- Theo will need to jump into the water, Laura will have to give Bonav the time of day, the painting will need to be recovered from the actual thieves -- laid out so neatly that there are practically no surprises left in store.

After Theo has stumbled upon an ancient grimoire of “red magic” that’s being consulted by Arkandias (Christian Clavier), a mysterious man who looks like he hasn’t bathed for a couple of centuries, he wants to use a recipe for an invisibility ring to find and steal back the the stolen painting that would clear his mother’s reputation and would allow them to stay in the house. But the creation of the ring, complete with disgusting ingredients, a medieval flute ditty played by Laura and a once-in-every-67-years astral conjunction, of course brings more trouble than luck to the protagonists, especially after they have localized the three thieves/witches who stole the painting. Played by Isabelle Nanty and the single-name actresses Anemone and Armelle, the witches' inane dialogue and actions are supposed to work as comic relief but are more cringe-inducing than funny and evil (admittedly an impossible combination to start with).

The directors also do too little to credibly integrate the existence of magic into the real world (something which their example, Harry Potter, excels at), and there’s not enough clever plotting, humor or warmth to add the film to the canon of fantasy children’s films of the 1980s that the filmmakers reportedly so admire, such as those directed by Robert Zemeckis and Joe Dante.

They can’t even be bothered to explain the exact rules of magic in this universe, resulting in sights that seem to contradict each other: Nanty’s character is invisible as she leaves a bank with equally invisible cash strapped to her clothed body, though in a later scene, Theo and his clothes are invisible but a hooded raincoat he’s wearing remains apparent, resulting in the illusion of a flying raincoat. The effects work is also more likely to be convincing on the small-screen rather than in cinemas, with only an underwater sequence, in which one of the characters swims while invisible, packing any visual oomph.

The Belgian child actors are often more convincing than the adult leads, though Clavier can hardly be faulted for a character that’s neither persuasively drawn -- his transformation from villain to kind soul seems to have ended up on the cutting room floor altogether, so he seems almost bipolar -- nor given all that much to do. Still, smaller kids will love the fact he literally walks around with a monkey on his back most of the time. 

Production companies: Les Films du 24, TF1 Droits Audiovisuels, Umedia, Cinefrance 1888

Cast: Ryan Brodie, Christian Clavier, Isabelle Nanty, Anemone, Armelle, Timothee Coetsier, Pauline Brisy

Directors: Alexandre Castagnetti, Julien Simonet

Screenplay: Alexandre Castagnetti, Julien Simonet, Jean-Marie Poire, Natalie Carter, based on the novel by Eric Boisset

Producer: Yves Marmion

Director of photography: Yannick Ressigeac

Production designers: Patrick Dechesne, Alain-Pascal Housiaux

Costume designer: Catherine Marchand

Editor: Thibaut Damade

Music: Clement Marchand

Casting: Michael Bier, Doriane Flamand

Sales: TF1 International


No rating, 92 minutes

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