‘Benoit Brisefer: Les Taxis rouges’: Film Review

Benoit Brisefer Still - H 2014
Courtesy of The Walt Disney Company France

Benoit Brisefer Still - H 2014

Do not hail this cab

Jean Reno and Gerard Jugnot star in Walt Disney France’s latest live-action release

Belgium cartoonist Peyo is perhaps best known for creating the Smurfs — or, as they’re called in their original language, “Les Schtroumpfs” (try pronouncing that). He fathered another character in the 1960s who’s been popular with Francophone readers from that generation: the pint-sized 10-year-old superhero, Benoit Brisefer.

Yet while Peyo’s work has flourished on both the page and small screen, the same cannot be said for the various live-action adaptations, beginning with the profitable but dreadful The Smurfs and its even more horrendous follow-up The Smurfs 2. Now there’s a French-language version of the first Brisefer comic, entitled Benoit Brisefer: Les Taxis Rouges. And while it plays out at times like a purposely retro throwback to children’s flicks from the epoch, it’s also a short and incongruous mess, tossing lots of money and several stars at a film that never soars above the level of a first grader.

Perhaps that was the intention of this Walt Disney Pictures France release, which should attract only a modest number of tykes for the competitive Gallic holiday season. But with an €11M ($13.5M) budget and an A-lister at the helm, there were clearly some thwarted ambitions here, beginning with the filmmaker himself — Mary Baie des Anges auteur Manuel Pradal, whose name conspicuously disappeared from promo materials (including the poster) and who’s now credited with providing “mise-en-scene” for the 76-minute cut distributed in theaters. Tintin this is not.

In the seaside town of Vivejoie-la-Grande, little Benoit Brisefer (Leopold Huet) is a picture-perfect Frenchie complete with beret, red petticoat and blue scarf. But he also has something hidden up his sleeve: the power to leap between buildings and punch through brick walls — something he can do as long as he doesn’t come down with a cold. Benoit has few real friends beyond the kindhearted local cab driver, Monsieur Dussiflard (Gerard Jugnot), who’s trying his best to woo Benoit’s caretaker, Madame Adolphine (Evelyne Buyle). But when a new fleet of modern red taxis begins taking over, Dussiflard’s job is in jeopardy and Benoit jumps in for the rescue.

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That’s as far as the plot goes, although discerning cultural critics could perhaps read something into it about Uber’s recent efforts to encroach on the archaic French cab system. Otherwise, and despite five credited writers, this is a purely one-dimensional affair, as if Pradal were doing his utmost to imitate the original comic without adding anything else — a method that stretches to the extremely cartoonish performances, including Jean Reno as the evil, cigar-chomping taxi boss in, yes, a pinstripe suit.

At times, the vintage filmmaking can be rather enchanting, with cinematographer Antoine Roch (Attila Marcel) using a Kodachrome-esque color palette and Franco-Belgian effects house Mac Guff relying on stop-motion-style imagery to portray Benoit’s various superhuman feats. It’s as if the crew were trying to imitate the mouse house’s own Herbie movies of the ‘60s and ‘70s, while a scene where Benoit is trapped on a boat and observes an underwater octopus feels like a homage to Robert Altman’s Popeye — another, more successful case of an auteur tackling a comic strip.

No matter what the references are, they don’t make Benoit Brisefer any better, although with a truncated running time and some gaps in the story, the film must have been cut down from its original version. Either way, this commercial misfire represents another failed attempt to bring Peyo’s creations to life, and those still curious about Benoit and his buddies are best off checking them out in print.

Production companies: Lambart Productions, Acajou Films, Novo Arturo Films, Panache Productions, La Compagnie Cinematographique
Cast: Gerard Jugnot, Jean Reno, Thierry Lhermitte, Leopold Huet, Hippolyte Girardot, Evelyne Buyle
Director: Manuel Pradal
Screenwriters: Thierry Clech, Jean-Luc Voulfow, Ivan Guyot, Manuel Pradal, Thierry de Ganay, based on the comic book by Peyo
Director of photography: Antoine Roch
Art directors: Sergio Costa, Thierry Flamand
Costume designer: Nathalie Leborgne
Editor: Virginie Bruant
Composers: Michael Tordjman, Maxime Desprez
Visual effects: Mac Guff (Belgium)

No rating, 76 minutes