Leonardo Da Vinci is considered one of the world’s most brilliant minds. He was an artist, an engineer, a painter, and more. His work has been the catalyst for novels (Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code), cinematic comedies (Michael Lehmann’s Hudson Hawk), and inspired minds both real and imagined (Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion). But what’s often lost in his legacy is that Da Vinci was also human. Using the combined magic of stop motion and 2D animation, director/writer Jim Capobianco (The Lion King/Ratatouille) and co-director Pierre-Luc Granjon (Sacrebleu! Le loup blanc et autres contes), the story of Da Vinci is given new life as it explores the remaining years before his death. With a pinch of art and a dash of song, The Inventor is a silly, yet serious, artful exploration of a complicated mind.
Set during the period where Leonardo Da Vinci leaves Italy for France, The Inventor invites audiences into the mind of the inventor (voiced by Stephen Fry) as he works with his two assistants to discover the mysteries of the human condition, while also trying to placate King Francis (voiced by Gauthier Battoue) of France and the Queen Mother Louise De Savoy (voiced by Marion Cotillard), and stay out of the reach of Pope Leo X (voiced by Matt Berry) of the Vatican. Torn between the promises made to the king and the dreams of an age of ideas, Leonardo will have to discover balance amid his many masters if he’s ever to learn the meaning of life.
Where one might presume a story depicting a period of someone’s life via mixed-medium animation might seem strange, in action, the decision becomes positively clear and a tad ingenious. The film posits that Da Vinci is almost perpetually lost in his ideas, so much so that some projects are devised, pitched, and then forgotten due to some other new concept to explore. The film also utilizes many of the various engineering accomplishments as the means of expressing, for those who aren’t aware of his many creations, what they looked like and how they functioned. While perhaps far more time consuming to bring both of these aspects to life via stop motion or hand-drawn animation, doing so stimulates the imagination in a way that live-action depictions almost always fail to do. Part of this is due to the attention to detail in the craft of The Inventor: the construction of sets, the creation of outfits for the puppets, the beauty of the animation in motion, for example. So when Da Vinci is showing off his magnification device used to study the moon, one is taken aback with awe — a manifestation of both the work of Capobianco’s team and Da Vinci’s original ingenuity. But the cleverness isn’t limited to just the presentation of Da Vinci and his work, it exists in the way that characters are presented, furthering the story’s important elements in the way only animation can.
In order to demonstrate that Pope Leo X has spies keeping an eye on Da Vinci, Capobianco eschews the standard puppet type used for the other characters and opts for animated shadow-like figures that are less corporeal in nature. Thus, when they slide across the ground or appear on either side of the Pope, we already understand that these are secretive beings meant to do diabolical things for the Pope. It’s a utilization of visual language that short-cuts exposition smartly. Similarly, during the portion set in Italy at the start, the first meeting with Pope Leo X finds the figure as constructed much larger than the other puppets, implying a largesse to his personage, matched wonderfully by Berry’s vocal delivery. In comparison, the figure of Da Vinci’s then-sponsor who sits to the Pope’s right is both significantly smaller in figure and vocal reach, conveying that while the patron is a member of the church and can offer Da Vinci some protection, the patron is very much beneath the Pope. It’ll play for a laugh in the execution with younger audiences, to be sure, while also communicating the interpersonal relationships of the three characters (Pope, patron, Da Vinci) without a line of dialogue necessary. It’s the little things that make The Inventor feel remarkable, the convergence of thematic and technical ideation speaking directly to the source material, elevating both and inspiring the audience to lean in. The score and original songs from composer Alex Mandel (Your Friend the Rat) aid in the frequent whimsy and pensive weight that ebbs and flows throughout. One does not expect to weep at the sight of puppets musing on the significance of life, singing about the impermanence of time and weight of legacy, yet tears are likely to flow.
Despite all the great things accomplished in the undertaking, The Inventor is not a film that one can just jump into without some understanding of history, politics, and Da Vinci himself. The script by Capobianco does make sure to make certain things clear (Da Vinci’s tempestuous relationship with the Church, his desire for knowledge over politics), but it also doesn’t take the time to explain things that younger audiences may not realize. Sometimes it’s a little thing like Da Vinci is the painter of the Mona Lisa portrait, explaining a bit of his infatuation with the mystery of it. Other times, it’s using the famous iconography of Da Vinci’s life (like the Vitruvian Man) without explaining why that work matters in the scope of his life at that moment. It’s certainly going to tickle or connect with those who understand it, but given the tone and tenor of the project, there’s a strong sense that The Inventor is aimed more at younger audiences and would, therefore, not fully reach its intended audience.
If you’ve made it this far into the review, please allow me to provide one minor spoiler for The Inventor that I promise won’t ruin the experience: stay through the credits. If you’re a fan of stop motion animation, the credits are constructed in such a way that as each of the department heads or major contributors to the completion of the film are identified by name, we get a look at what their work may have looked like: storyboards, puppets, scripting, etc. Additionally, like with several LAIKA Studios production credits, there’s a moment where we get to see one of the puppeteers at work, their hands sped up so we can see the puppet moving as they do in the film, offering a sense of just how much work went into the production. Of course, there’s also an end credit scene featuring a character from the production, in case you don’t want to miss it.
Much in the way that fellow animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) utilizes the visual language of its source material to snag its audience, dazzling them with technical brilliance and wonder, The Inventor uses the far more traditional stop motion and hand-drawn animation to do the exact same thing. The tangible nature of the art on display, even when one can see the trace lines comprising the drawn figures, psychologically connects the audience to the tangible nature of the characters, real humans who lived complicated lives and whose legacy continues to this day. Though Jim Capobianco and Pierre-Luc Granjon give us puppets which were painstakingly positioned to capture seconds of footage, the magic of The Inventor is how we stop seeing them as avatars and start seeing them as the beings they once were. Alive once more, filled with curiosity and awe at the mysteries of existence, and, perhaps, about to ignite the flame in some smaller audience member to begin their own journey of exploration.
That would be a legacy to be proud of.
In select U.S. theaters beginning September 15th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official The Inventor website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.