Like me, you may remember the black and white children's TV series from the 1960s about the adventures of a boy (Sébastien) and his Pyrenean sheep dog (Belle). The film rights have sat on Gaumont's books for a while until wildlife documentary maker Nicolas Vanier (Le dernier trappeur) was persuaded to take on this much loved classic. Breaking a rule of cinema by working with both animals and children and with fans of the original watching closely Vanier is a brave man and does not disappoint.
To recap the story, Sébastien is the adopted son of Caesar (Tcheky Karyo), a shepherd. His mother, a gypsy, died in the mountains during childbirth asking Caesar to take care of her boy. In the original TV series he is played by Mehdi who also appears in the 2013 film as lumberjack André. Perhaps with the naivety of the small Sébastien he once was, Mehdi hopes his appearance in the film will relaunch his acting career. Belle is a mistreated Pyrenean shepherd dog who is running wild in the mountains and the villagers believe is attacking their sheep. Sébastien befriends and tames the dog but he his hunted by the villagers after he attacks German soldiers. There is a back story of Jewish refugees, Nazis and the villagers trying to help them to safety in Switzerland over the high and dangerous mountains. Dad's taking their kids to the cinema are not forgotten with Sébastien's adopted sister, the village baker Angélina (played by "belle" Margaux Châtelier) hawking her baps to both Germans and French alike.
In fact the World War II setting is something of a canard. Vanier tackles some topical themes. Refuges escaping war and persecution, environmental issues and man's cruelty to animals and the stupidity of war. Caesar is a proto-environmentalist with a big heart, in a spectacular opening sequence he and Sébastien rescue a baby mountain goat whose mother has been killed by poachers. Kids will probably miss the sub-text but be enchanted by the charismatic Sébastien (Félix Bossuet) and his fluffy white dog (played by Garfield).
Vanier's heritage as a wildlife film maker shines through. The story is very simple the the dialogue sparse. He frequently breaks away to show us Chamois frolicking in the meadows or an Eagle soaring on thermals. It is reminiscent of John Toll's camera work in Maliks Thin Red Line. The original theme tune and l'Oiseau are sung by in-vogue chanteuse Zaz.
Filmed in the Upper Maurienne, Vanoise National Park, Vercors and Font d'Urle in the Pyrenees over four seasons. The mountains have never looked more splendid. A Christmas treat for young and old.