Da Vinci is the inventor, but The Inventor is no Da Vinci

The Inventor

Though beautifully animated and well-performed, Jim Capbianco’s tale of the genius trips over its own feet due to its inability to balance its tones.

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the works being covered here wouldn’t exist.

The Inventor is an odd little film. It is a mess throughout, and there are many instances where I got the sense that writer/co-director Jim Capbianco did not know what kind of story he was trying to tell or who his audience was. And yet it possesses an undeniable charm, one that sticks with you.  

The titular inventor is none other than Leonardo da Vinci (Stephen Fry). As the picture opens, his anatomical explorations—part of his quest to find evidence of the human soul—have inspired potential charges of heresy from the Cardinal of Aragon (Hum Capbianco). Thus, Leonardo is shipped off to France as part of a peace gesture to serve under the newly crowned Francis I (Gauthier Battoue). At first, the relocation seems ideal: the king seems genuinely interested in Leonardo’s nobler ambitions—shis anatomy investigations, and plans including a modern self-sufficient city and a flying machine. But before long, it becomes apparent that the king is more interested in having Leonardo create testaments to his might—specifically a giant statue in his image—that he can display to his fellow kings during an upcoming summit. 

Although disillusioned, Leonardo does have one person on his side: Princess Marguerite (Daisy Ridley), who shares Leonardo’s inquisitive nature—which was frowned upon in women back then. Leonardo and Marguerite, aided by Leonardo’s loyal assistants and some adorable kids try to pull the wool over the eyes of both Francis and the imperious Louise de Savoy (Marion Cotillard). Ostensibly, they’ll focus on Francis’ odes to himself. In practice, they’ll devote most of their efforts to their more scientific endeavors, especially those involving the pursuit of evidence of the soul. It’s evidence all too pressing for increasingly obvious reasons.

The Inventor
The Inventor, Blue Fox Entertainment.

The biggest problem with The Inventor is its uncertainty of its audience. Although the film does have its funny moments here and there, it is otherwise a relatively straightforward and straight-faced take on Da Vinci. Even if younger viewers are interested in his life, I suspect that most of them might grow a tad fidgety during the scenes of court intrigue and Leonardo pondering his own mortality. (Even the jokes don’t exactly skew young—there are a number of pointed jabs at organized religion and a running gag about corpse theft.) If the film had simply chosen to skew older consistently, it might have worked. But Capbianco elects to hedge his bets by trying to appeal to younger viewers. He includes several musical numbers that, even if the songs had been good or memorable (they aren’t), are wildly out of place and repeatedly grind the picture to a halt.  

And yet, despite these issues, The Inventor has a lot going for it, especially its intriguing visual approach. The main story is presented via stop-motion animation. It’s a delight to watch and underscores the personal, hand-crafted approach that Da Vinci applied to his own work. However, when it comes to visualizing Da Vinci as he imagines his designs coming together, The Inventor shifts to traditional 2-D animation that is similarly gorgeous and allows more detailed looks at what made Da Vinci’s machines work. The voice performances are also quite good, successfully navigating between the picture’s gentle humor and the more serious-minded moment. 

While The Inventor does not wholly work, it is still ultimately worth seeing. Not all of its gambits pay off, but those that do have enough charm to make up for the parts that don’t. It also works as a good cinematic primer to introduce kids to Leonardo Da Vinci and the breadth and scope of his considerable artistic and scientific endeavors—at least until they are old enough to watch Hudson Hawk.

The Inventor opens in theaters this Friday, September 15th, 2023.

The Inventor Trailer:

Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a Chicago-based filmcritic whose work can be seen at RogerEbert.com, EFilmcritic.com and, well, here. He is also on the board for the Chicago Critics Film Festival and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Yes, he once gave four stars to “Valerian” and he would do it again.

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