The Austin Chronicle

The Inventor

Rated PG, 100 min. Directed by Jim Capobianco, Pierre-Luc Granjon. Voices by Stephen Fry, Angelino Sandri, Daisy Ridley, Matt Berry, Marion Cotillard, Natalie Palamides, Jim Capobianco, Gauthier Battoue, Max Baumgarten.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Sept. 15, 2023

Stop motion animation attracts obsessives. Its methodical demands seem suited for the singular mind, and since (unless you're called Del Toro or are one of the valiant souls at Laika, home of Kubo and the Two Strings) it's rare that large studios will fund these miracles of minute motion. As a result, stop motion seems more likely than any other medium to be fertile ground for passion projects. Two years ago, Phil Tippett was able to unleash his decades-in-gestation Mad God upon the cosmos, and now Ratatouille writer Jim Capobianco brings the story of the genius of Leonardo da Vinci in The Inventor.

The Renaissance master of the arts and science is given luscious stop-motion life in Capobianco's Kickstarter-funded, Rankin-Bass influenced history lesson. And this is a history lesson rather than a morality tale, recounting Da Vinci's twilight years in semi-exile in France after he infuriated the truculent and anti-intellectual Pope Leo X (a suitably bombastic Berry) and found patronage under the bombastic King Francis 1 (Battoue). But Capobianco centers his story around Da Vinci's relationship with Francis' sister, Marguerite de Navarre (Ridley), who sees the complexity of his genius. She is the only other character who can walk within the 2D interludes (animated by Cartoon Saloon, the studio behind Wolfwalkers and Song of the Sea), his realms of limitless wonderment. This is a delightful meeting of minds: two utopianists sparking in a world of petty politics and posturing buffoons.

As the voice of Da Vinci, Stephen Fry grounds the inventor as an overgrown child, forever tinkering, endlessly hopeful for a brighter future, a student of the physical, metaphysical, and all spaces in between. That means the animation, and a jovial style of storytelling, is the sugar to help a surprisingly mature and complex tale go down – seriously, there was never this much graverobbing, heresy, or references to Seneca on the Island of Misfit Toys.

There's an undeniable boldness to Capobianco's decision to channel a biography through the medium of stop motion, but it's perfect for the untrammeled exuberance and boundless ingenuity of Da Vinci. To restrict him to real life would be unseemly and restrictive. Moreover, it's not hard to imagine that the man who built a life-size clockwork lion just because he could would not simply approve, but would offer to build a few armatures himself. Not that he would necessarily finish them – Capobianco never shies away from Da Vinci's inability to move past the theoretical, resulting in a running joke about the humorless Michelangelo and his monomaniacal dedication to the Sistine Chapel. Such silliness gives The Inventor much-needed levity that makes Da Vinci the genius more accessible and also, ultimately, so much more inspirational. In rendering his final days in plastic, Capobianco makes the original Renaissance man more human.

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