No sane person goes into a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film looking for quietude, but even so, Micmacs - his first feature in half a decade - is a hell of a lot of movie. Compared to his earlier work (and despite a plethora of references to classic Hollywood cinema, the only reference point for Jeunet is and has always been Jeunet), it's as though the all-encompassing world-building of The City of Lost Children was married to the hyper-aggressive whimsy of Amélie; the result is a madly cheerful caper-fantasy that might be happy and sweet, with its roly-poly love story and calculated naïveté about world politics, but its goddamn exhausting, even so.

Two events have shaped Bazil's (Dany Boon) life: thirty years ago, his father was blown up while clearing landmines, and now, he's just been shot in the head by an errant bullet while working late at night at a video rental store. While unconscious, he's lost both his job and his apartment, and that's how he ends up falling in with a group of people living in a junkyard: under the general guidance of Mama Chow (Yvonne Moreau), or Tambouille if you're a French speaker, he is brought into a world of human cannonballs and delightfully crazy toymakers and various other charmingly oddball figures, especially a pretty bright-eyed contortionist (Julie Ferrier). Bazil has more on his mind than building a new life, though, for he has discovered by accident that the company which manufactured the landmine that killed his father is the dire enemy of the company which manufactured the bullet still lodged in his head, and he starts finding ways to pit their competing CEOs, Nicolas Thibault de Fenouillet (André Dussollier) and François Marconi (Nicolas Marié) at each others' throats, by using his new family to help him executed a complicated series of slapsticky capers against the two arms dealers. It is, in effect, Ocean's Eleven plus Yojimbo, and it looks like something Terry Gilliam would have shied away from as too surreal.

The first thing you notice about Micmacs (whose French title, Micmacs à tire-larigot is a slang-heavy and untranslatable phrase, much like Du rififi chez les hommes, known to the English-speaking world as Rififi) is the look, of course; for Jeunet is one of the most visually creative filmmakers out there. Which is not at all another way of saying that he privileges the image over the plot, for being at heart a caper film, Micmacs also has a fairly intricate story that's worked out in no small detail, so that throwaway lines turn out to be very important bits of foreshadowing, or so that tiny recurring details keep popping up in unexpected ways that tie the whole thing into an unexpectedly satisfying whole. But the visuals, as I said, are so obvious, that it seems idiotic to begin anywhere else. The days of Jeunet's collaborations with Marc Caro are long gone, and thus compared to City of Lost Children or Delicatessen, Micmacs wants only to delight us. Thus all the time spent lovingly wandering around the junkyard home of the misfits, or the fussy interiors of the two arms dealers. It's imaginative like nothing else, and for this at least it's impossible not to respond to the film with some warmth; though on balance, it's not quite as visually appealing as the director's collaborations with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, whose natural tendency is to depict spaces with the same colorful whimsy that Jeunet likes to indulge in. Here, he's working instead with Nagata Tetsuo, whose work is not terribly well-known in America (though he shot the currently-in-theaters Splice, ironically enough; also 2007's La Vie en Rose). Nagata is a talented man, but he's being hamstrung by what I assume was Jeunet's command to make the thing look as much like Delbonnel as possible; and where Delbonnel looks like himself as a matter of course, Nagata has to strain for the same effect.

Still, if you're looking for a candy-colored parade of magical objects, Micmacs delivers in spades. Nor is that all it delivers; for the plot, I've mentioned, is a fairly tight, satisfying caper, if that's what you're in the mood for, though Jeunet's attempts to yoke his story to a real-world political concern - the spread of Western arms in the Third World - generally do not work, half because of the film's twee lightness, and half because nothing that Jeunet or co-writer Guillaume Laurent have to say on the subject is either fresh, or insightful. A late scene that finds the arms dealers confronted by pictures of children deformed by their products is deliriously out-of-place, to the point where "misjudged" is too weak a word by half. Darkness simply has no place whatsoever in this film; consider, for example, the notion that Bazil might die at any second from the bullet in his brain, a conceit that is abandoned the moment it is brought up, unless it's that his frequent seizures send him on trippy, playful animated hallucinations.

Any attempt to unite Micmacs and the modern world is also doomed to failure thanks to the film's joyous evocation of 1940s films, beginning with Bazil mouthing the words to the French dub of The Big Sleep, and continuing with the omnipresence of Max Steiner cues on the soundtrack and the general feeling that all of this feels rather too innocent for the 21st Century. It's all part of a whole package, in which the film comes across as a breezy lark, a bundle of silly plot points and charming visions, a big old pop-art playground for the mind, capped off with a trivial but satisfying love story.

Unfortunately, this also means that the film is a good deal shallower than anything else in Jeunet's career, absent the better-left-forgotten Alien Resurrection. Compared to Amélie Poulain, or Mathilde, the heroine of A Very Long Engagement, Bazil is not at all a credible protagonist; nor is he meant to be, I don't think. After moving from the powerhouse world-building of his first two films, Jeunet had begun moving into something more humane and emotional, without necessarily sacrificing his visual ingenuity; yet Micmacs has neither great human characters nor the same depth of visual majesty of the director's better works. I would call it Jeunet Lite, except that there is so very much of that whimsy and creativity that it feels like the purest, most rarefied Jeunet we've ever seen. Perhaps that's the problem; perhaps he's the kind of filmmaker who needs somebody reigning him in to give scope and form to his visions. Whatever the case, Micmacs, though pleasing in its own right, proves to be too demanding and wearying in the service of not very much, in the end.