A clever inventor like Leonardo da Vinci seems like the ideal subject for a clever artform like stop-motion animation. And in many ways he is: Da Vinci’s creations translate to the screen with whimsy and skill in The Inventor, written, produced, and directed by Jim Capobianco and co-directed by Pierre-Luc Granjon. But despite its protagonist, voiced by British actor Stephen Fry, the film feels oddly disjointed, as if there’s not enough story to sustain 90 minutes of beautifully-made stop-motion and hand-drawn animation.
THE INVENTOR ★★1/2 (2.5/4 stars)
We meet Da Vinci towards the end of his life. He’s working studiously in Italy, but Pope Leo X (Matt Berry) isn’t a fan of his creations. This sort of work, the pope says, should be devout and pay homage to God, not be so fanciful. But Da Vinci is on a existential quest to understand the purpose of life. Capobianco, known as the screenwriter of Ratatouille, intercuts the stop-motion with sketchy, hand-drawn sequences where the inventor seeks meaning before he ascends into the great beyond. It’s deep, in a good way, although younger viewers will drop their attention frequently in these scenes. Da Vinci eventually leaves Italy for the French court, where the royal family tasks him with building a perfect city.
It’s all ripe for compelling visuals. The animation is executed with genuine care and love for the medium, and the craft is impressive. But the story is often aimless and surprisingly flat. Da Vinci teams up a young woman named Marguerite (Daisy Ridley) as he explores his ideas in France, but there is little in the way of actual plot. There are some songs, but you won’t remember any of them. There is a conflict of sorts with Louise of Savoy, voiced by the only actual French person in the film Marion Cotillard, but the stakes here are low.
Stop-motion requires an immense amount of time and skill, which is why it’s so rarely made. The Inventor evokes the old-school style of Rankin-Bass in a way that’s enjoyably nostalgic. You can almost feel and touch the characters. So it’s disappointing that the film doesn’t seem to know what it is or who it’s for. It doesn’t seem like it’s for kids, especially young ones, although older children and teens might be interested in Da Vinci’s life and work presented in a less erudite way. It asks big questions about life and meaning that might compel adults, but it’s ultimately hard to see this landing anywhere outside of a niche audience. If you appreciate stop-motion as an art, it’s a must. If you want a good story, maybe not.
In the end, Da Vinci finds his meaning, although it’s not fully shared with the audience. That choice feels emblematic of the film itself. Capobianco and his filmmakers visually showcase something sincerely beautiful. It’s a reminder of why stop-motion is a genre worth preserving and perpetuating. But under the colorful façade the foundation is underbuilt. Like Da Vinci’s own work, though, maybe it’s enough to try something interesting and see if it works.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.