THE STORY – The insatiably curious Leonardo da Vinci leaves Italy to join the French court, where he can experiment freely, invent incredible machines and study the human body. He is joined on his adventure by the audacious French princess Marguerite de Navarre.
THE CAST – Stephen Fry, Marion Cotillard, Daisy Ridley & Matt Berry
THE TEAM – Jim Capobianco (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 92 Minutes
As much as Hollywood churns out biopics, it’s fascinating that Leonardo da Vinci has rarely been portrayed on film. Da Vinci is undeniably one of the most influential figures in human history for his contributions to art and science and numerous inventions throughout the Renaissance. Yet, few films have attempted to tell the man’s story. “The Inventor” takes this task on, though it’s far from a conventional biopic. Hailing from Academy Award-nominee Jim Capobianco (“Ratatouille”), “The Inventor” uses both stop-motion and hand-drawn animation to tell the story of Leonardo da Vinci’s (Stephen Fry) final years in France as he searches for the ultimate meaning of life. It may be a kid-friendly retelling of his story, avoiding the complexities that come with diving into the life of da Vinci. Still, it’s an enlightening story nonetheless, packing a decent emotional punch along the way.
Though “The Inventor” focuses mainly on the last decade or so of the artist’s life, there’s little to orient someone unfamiliar with the man already. Giving more background and context for the highs and lows of what he had already been through would have been helpful, especially with this being a family film. Nevertheless, the film begins in 1516 in Rome, as da Vinci finds himself firmly under the thumb of the Pope. Leonardo is at his wit’s end, unable to conduct his experiments (i.e., dissecting cadavers) without interference from the Church. “Why can’t you just be satisfied painting pretty things,” Pope Leo X (Matt Berry) asks him, citing Michelangelo’s quiet obedience. As war looms on the horizon with France, Leonardo shows off his designs for weapons of war but convinces the Pope to pursue peace instead.
Finally, the Pope sends Leonardo to France, tasking the artist with forging peace with the newly crowned King Francis I (Gauthier Battoue). The artist finds new freedom to pursue his experiments thanks to the King’s sister, Marguerite de Navarre (Daisy Ridley). Throughout the film, we get glimpses of Leonardo’s work over the years. We see his thirst for knowledge and passion for discovering why the world works as it does. This is what wins Marguerite over, too.
Through the animation and lovely music, “The Inventor” conveys Leonardo’s pure joy for the world. It’s tangible and exciting. He’s thrilled by something as simple as a seed, raving about the powers inside such a tiny thing. While most of the film utilizes stop-motion animation, its bursts of hand-drawn animation from Cartoon Saloon (“Song of the Sea,” “Wolfwalkers“) truly encapsulate Leonardo’s joy. These segments are gorgeous, colorful, and full of life. While the historical accuracy of the film shouldn’t be relied on, seeing the imagination of Leonardo da Vinci in this way is thrilling. In one sequence, as he conducts experiments on cadavers, the senses of the human body come to life, and da Vinci is drawn into “the mind’s eye.” The stop-motion animation is sadly not as compelling. It features a classic style reminiscent of the Rankin-Bass Christmas specials. Whether intentional or not, this style feels somewhat rudimentary and stilted, especially compared to the breathtaking Cartoon Saloon segments. Some may appreciate the nostalgic look, though.
However, the music for “The Inventor” is anything but rudimentary. Alex Mandel’s score is joyous and jaunty, truly capturing the essence of Leonardo’s search for what makes humankind tick. There are also numerous songs throughout the film. They may not be as catchy as Disney tunes, but they’re lovely in context. While Fry and Ridley aren’t the most powerful vocalists, their voice performances in character are exceptional. Fry brings an infectious lust for life to da Vinci while not shying away from the melancholy of older age.
As Leonardo realizes he’s running out of time to discover the human soul, “The Inventor” takes a remarkably existential and sweet turn. For most of his life, he believed the soul to be a physical part of the human body, an organ like the heart or lungs. The strength of the film lies in Leonardo’s realizations about the true nature of the human soul. It’s an exuberant discovery that reminds us why our passions matter, and the people around us are vital to who we are. Brilliant writing makes these moments shine brightly.
Younger kids may have more difficulty keeping up with “The Inventor,” which lacks the typical broad jokes or slapstick action of most children’s films. If kids are unaware of da Vinci, they may also struggle to understand the importance of this character. Nevertheless, the film soars with bursts of creativity, lovely hand-drawn animation, and a sweet ode to the human spirit. It’s rare to find historical (mostly) non-fiction stories in animation these days – and “The Inventor” nails it.