A cute child and an adorable dog: a perfect combination to have audiences collectively going, “Awwwh.” A French film adaptation of the popular 1965 TV series, which itself was adapted from Cécile Aubry’s much loved 1965 novel, Belle and Sebastian certainly aims to give you those warm fuzzy feelings and to tug at those heartstrings, and while it’s unashamedly sentimental and corny on occasion, it succeeds in what it sets out to do.
The story is set in a small French mountain village in 1943. Sébastien lives with his grandfather César, who refuses to send him to the local school. When a “beast” is rumoured to be killing off surrounding livestock, César joins local farmers in tracking it down to kill it once and for all. Unfortunately, this “beast” is actually a large dog that has now befriended young Sébastien. As the child and canine grow even closer, Sébastien decides to help the dog hide out. As if this weren’t enough, Nazi soldiers have settled into town in an attempt to capture French Resistance fighters crossing through the area. Sébastien and his dog, which he has named Belle, will soon prove their worth.
Belle and Sebastian, or Belle et Sébastien in French, is decidedly old-fashioned in its approach to storytelling. Proceedings unfold simply and straightforwardly, with a commendable desire to let the story drive the picture. Director and co-writer Nicolas Vanier clearly knows his way around nature and animals, his background as a documentary filmmaker certainly shows as he beautifully captures this growing friendship.
There’s an overall tranquil quality to the film, with sumptuous visuals depicting the French countryside and the animals that live throughout the area. It’s a relief of sorts to watch a movie that relishes the opportunity to capture the beauty of the natural world, even if the human element doesn’t quite reach the same heights.
Young Félix Bossuet fleshes Sébastien out nicely, thanks his absolutely wonderful performance. His innocence and adventurous spirit is driven home every moment he is on-screen. As his buddy, Belle is great movie canine. Brave, loyal and with a personality all of her own, the film ensures that you’re with this dog every step of the way. You care about both of them, a deeply important factor in a film such as this.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the rest of the human cast. The Nazi and French Resistance elements of the story don’t play out too well; with underwritten characters that are simply there to set forth the next plot point. A side love story, for example, simply doesn’t provide the drama the film clearly intends. César, played well by Tchéky Karyo (Bad Boys, Kiss of the Dragon), is probably the best character that isn’t the boy or the dog, and even he struggles to bring much to the table.
The film wears its heart on its sleeve, sometimes overly showing it in the process. An awkwardly placed song comes to mind, probably inspired by the Belle and Sebastian anime series from 1981, which had the audience at my screening cringing. Still, the more forgiving will easily accept it all.
Ultimately, this is a film about the friendship between a boy and his dog, and it works wonderfully on that level. As this adventure unfolds you’re more than aware that the film may be banking on the cuteness of its story a hell of a lot, but the undeniable sweetness wins you over. Belle and Sebastian is a kind-hearted, solid picture. In a day and age where everything is over-the-top and flashy, this harks back to the sweet and simple family films of yesteryear.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10