The Soul of Leonardo da Vinci is Captured in The Inventor

Movies Reviews stop-motion
The Soul of Leonardo da Vinci is Captured in The Inventor

What a delight it is to be reminded that the creative endeavors of artists living today can reconnect us so exquisitely to both the vitality and frustrations of an artist who lived 500 years ago. Director Jim Capobianco and co-director Pierre-Luc Granjon do just that with The Inventor, their gorgeously rendered hand-drawn and stop-motion animated interpretation of the last years of Leonardo da Vinci. 

One of the smartest things that The Inventor does in its presentation of da Vinci’s life, which makes it accessible for both young and older viewers, is constraining its storytelling scope. The tight 90-minute runtime doesn’t attempt to compress the depth and breadth of da Vinci’s prolific life of creation and invention into a typical biopic. Instead, Capobianco’s script wisely focuses on the last four years of his life. 

Residing in Rome under the papacy of Pope Leo X (Matt Berry), da Vinci (Stephen Fry)—like all artists of his time—operates like a kept man. Long dependent on the patronage of wealthy donors like Giuliano de Medici (John Gilkey) to fund his art and inventions, da Vinci is still a vigorous creator. But he is beyond weary with the oppression of the Catholic Church regarding some of his more radical ideas, like the search for the soul via the dissection of cadavers. Berry is well cast as the perpetually befuddled Pope, blustering vehemently against da Vinci’s fringe pursuits, calling them blasphemous and threatening him with excommunication. However, a visit by the younger King of France, Francis the First (Gauthier Battoue), presents da Vinci with a more open-minded advocate for his ideas. In 1516, Francis invites da Vinci and his two loyal assistants, Francesco Melzi (Angelino Sandri) and the hulking but silent Zoroastro, to his royal court to create for France, and da Vinci’s final creative chapter begins. 

Leonardo da Vinci’s time in France is portrayed as both prolific yet limited. He comes up with revolutionary ideas for urban planning, like his concept of the Ideal City, which is depicted via daVinci’s actual sketches. Yet he continues to be hampered by the small-minded men who fund him, along with the increasing failures of his own body. The film invents for him a challenging muse and friend in Princess Marguerite de Navarre (Daisy Ridley), the enlightened sister of King Francis. Also a free-thinker, she is just as enamored with da Vinci’s ideas, especially the Ideal City, and takes over its construction when her preoccupied brother and mother, Louise de Savoy (Marion Cotillard), are focused on more ego-centric pursuits. 

Pulled in too many creative directions, da Vinci finds it harder to find the patience or energy to focus on anything outside of his existential pursuits. He laments the frivolity of the King wanting him to make showy baubles, vanity statues or machines to facilitate advantages in impending wars. He is not what da Vinci had hoped for as a patron. Instead, his collaborations with the empathetic and curious Marguerite are where he finds true inspiration. And it is through her that da Vinci eventually comes to his own enlightenment about what the soul represents. 

If all of that sounds way too heady for an animated movie, it is in theory, but not in execution. The minimalist, cartoony stop-motion character design (reminiscent of the human characters in the classic Rankin/Bass stop-motion specials) is both whimsical and charming, which means even the most complicated ideas imparted by them come across warm and accessible. The 2D animations are where da Vinci’s more abstract ideas are expressed and even then, when he’s wrestling with heavy concepts like death or regret, they are gracefully expressed to land effectively with both children and adult viewers. The shift between styles creates a sense of momentum and adds fluid energy to The Inventor as a whole, allowing the different mediums to illustrate the variety of inventiveness contained within da Vinci’s brain. Alex Mandel’s lively and infectious score also keeps the film vibrant, featuring instruments from da Vinci’s era like violins and lutes which underscore the uplifting optimism at the heart of his pursuits. Mandel also wrote nine original songs for the film which are sung by the voice cast, with Ridley and Cotillard’s efforts the most memorable of the pack. 

The Inventor gets a little off track in the last 20 minutes with the introduction of the very big and overly simplistic portrayals of visiting kings: England’s Henry the VIII (Daniel Swan) and Spain’s Charles V (Max Baumgarten). They’re played broadly for the kids, erupting into fisticuffs over and over as a metaphor for the warring nature of the countries at the time. But they ultimately pull focus from the more thoughtful approach the rest of the film takes to bring closure to da Vinci’s spiritual pursuits. 

As for the animation itself, the film mainly uses the same materials available to da Vinci’s for his own creative expression: Paper, wood, ink, paints and brushes. The Inventor employs them to create a handmade aesthetic which reflects the tactile creativity of one of humanity’s greatest minds. Capobianco and Granjon’s choice to eschew CGI animation in favor of 2D and stop-motion is spot-on, as they best convey the authentic diligence of da Vinci’s own creations. 

Both techniques, executed so handsomely by the artists on this film, capture the duality of the world in which da Vinci lived. Most of The Inventor is told within the tangible, miniature setpieces and puppetry that recreates da Vinci’s personal haunts in Rome and Amboise, France. The 2D sections go more abstract, expressing the fanciful places da Vinci’s brain goes while processing the complex ideas and theories that his experiments provoke. That’s an inspired framework to not only tell da Vinci’s story in a clever way, but to showcase the two kinds of animation in a way that allows them both to shine. Thankfully, 2023 continues to be a banner year for animation of all kinds, with The Inventor proving that its traditional techniques of animation—done with such skill, heart and passion—are just as timeless as the man who inspired their use here.

Director: Jim Capobianco, (co-director) Pierre-Luc Granjon
Writers:  Jim Capobianco
Starring: Stephen Fry, Daisy Ridley, Marion Cotillard, Gauthier Battoue, Matt Berry
Release Date: September 15, 2023

Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe, The Story of Marvel Studios and The Art of Avatar: The Way of Water. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett or Instagram @TaraDBen

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