Billy & Buddy (Boule & Bill): Film Review

Boule & Bill Still - H 2013

Boule & Bill Still - H 2013

Glossy canine comedy tosses a few bones into an otherwise formulaic film.

Jean Roba's popular comic-book series is adapted to the big screen by "Welcome to the Sticks" writers Alexandre Charlot and Franck Magnier.

PARIS -- First the French gave us Jules et Jim, and now there’s Boule & Bill (or Billy & Buddy, as it’s called in English), a slickly crafted, feel-good kids flick that’s much closer to tyke-targeted Hollywood fare from the '80s and '90s than to anything resembling the Nouvelle Vague. This purely commercial enterprise from directing duo Alexandre Charlot and Franck Magnier (who wrote the box-office smash Welcome to the Sticks) transforms Belgian artist Jean Roba’s popular comic-book series -- about a naughty boy and his even naughtier dog -- into a polished and overstuffed family comedy with some darker undertones, as well as a few sexual overtones that probably wouldn't pass muster across the Atlantic.

Granted, the hanky panky is far from explicit, and actually takes place between the film’s troublemaking English Cocker Spaniel, Bill (voiced by Manu Payet), and a pet turtle named Charlotte (voiced by Sara Giraudeau). But when their swooning puppy love brings the tortoise to what seems like a state of near-orgasm (moans included), as a sultry “Je t’aime…moi non plus”-style song plays in the background, you know that you’re not really in Kansas, or America, anymore.

The animal pseudo-erotica is meant to provide comic relief to what’s otherwise a rather glum, 1973-set story of a fledging marriage, with a husband (Franck Dubosc) and wife (Marina Fois) trying to make the most of the former’s decision to move the household, for professional reasons, to a burgeoning Paris banlieue. Before this happens, mom surprises the couple’s high-energy enfant, Boule (Charles Crombez), with the titular pooch, and the two make fast friends, wreaking havoc on their picturesque cottage, and then on the dreary high-rise where the family relocates for Act II.

Intercutting scenes of the spouses struggling with their new surroundings, including a deranged neighbor (Nicolas Vaude) addicted to antidepressants, with lots of sequences of Boule and Bill running amok, the film offers up a rather strange kind of narrative premise: It’s as if the dog is both responsible for the family breakdown and, possibly, its only remedy. And while the portrait of domestic malaise is occasionally intriguing (and owes much to the original comics), things wind up all-too easily working themselves out in the long run, while an epilogue reveals this ultimately uplifting affair to be the origin story for the very franchise we’re watching.

Working with a budget just shy of €17 million ($22 million), Charlot and Magnier provide a glossy tech package filled with overtly colorful period costumes and decors, captured in sleek widescreen by D.P. Axel Cosnefroy (Them). An onslaught of '70s pop tunes accompanies a score by Alexandre Azaria (The Transporter) that hits too many notes in too many places, leaving little breathing room for the drama to unfold.

Released by StudioCanal on over 800 prints, B&B should lap it up domestically, banking off the renown of its source material (which includes several dozen comic collections and two animated series) as well as the ongoing Gallic school holidays. Overseas stints outside the usual Francophone kennels will be harder to come by, as there’s really not much here that English-speaking audiences can’t find in Marmaduke, Garfield or any other such tongue-in-cheek, talking-pet tales.

Production: LGM Cinema, StudioCanal, TF1 Films Productions, Nexus Factory, Bidibul Productions
Cast: Franck Dubosc, Marina Fois, Charles Crombez, Nicolas Vaude
Directors: Alexandre Charlot, Franck Magnier
Screenwriters: Alexandre Charlot, Franck Magnier, based on the comic books by Jean Roba
Producers: Cyril Colbeau-Justin, Jean-Baptiste Dupont
Executive producer: David Giordano
Director of photography: Axel Cosnefroy
Production designer: Ambre Sansonetti
Costume designer: Magdalena Labuz
Music: Alexandre Azaria
Editors: Cyril Nakache, Samuel Danesi
Sales: StudioCanal
No rating, 82 minutes