The Day of the Crows (Le Jour des Corneilles): San Sebastian Review

Old-school animation has moments of genuine charm amid over-familiar situations.

Jean Reno and the late Claude Chabrol lend their voices to Jean-Christophe Dessaint's animated adaptation of the novel by Jean-François Beauchemin.

An animated fable that may charm patient younger children, The Day of the Crows (Le Jour des corneilles) is of chief interest for adults as the final credit for Nouvelle Vague legend Claude Chabrol, who recorded his vocal contribution not long before his death in September 2010. While skilfully executed using old-school hand-drawn techniques, this adaptation of a 2005 novel by Québécois writer Jean-François Beauchemin otherwise isn't quite distinctive enough to stand out in an environment so jam-packed with flashier computer-animated rivals.

Release in France and Belgium is set for October 24, though commercial prospects are probably brightest in Beauchemi's native Canada. This directorial debut from Jean-Claude Dessaint could enjoy a healthy small-screen afterlife on TV and DVD, especially in French-speaking territories. Well received when world premiering at Annecy´s influential animation festival in June, it will reap plentiful bookings at similar events and the Chabrol 'USP' will also guarantee a certain level of exposure at more general festivals.

The vast majority of Chabrol's own features were unmistakeably French from root to branch, but Dessaint and scripwriter Amandine Taffin take considerable pains to avoid geographical specifics. So while much of the action unfolds in what looks, sounds and feels like rural France in the 1920s or 1930s, the picture also has one foot in the realms of timeless fairytales.

Combining elements of Shrek and Truffaut's The Wild Child - with touches of M Night Shyamalan´s The Village and, in the final third, Ken Loach's Kes - the story focuses on the ogre-like ‘Pumpkin’ (voiced by Jean Reno) who has raised his semi-feral young son (Lorànt Deutsch) in an isolated forest hut. The nameless lad has been raised in ignorance and fear about the mysterious 'World Beyond.'

But after his father is badly injured in a fall, Junior intrepidly ventures outside the forest´s cozy confines for the first time. Encountering civilization in the form of the village which Pumpkin fled years before, the undomesticated boy seeks help from the local doctor (Chabrol) and is given a crash-course in "normal" living by the doctor´s young daughter Manon (Isabelle Carré).

Despite its title, The Day of the Crows lacks significant corvine involvement until after an hour has passed, when our young, slingshot-wielding hero finds and spares a critter who duly becomes his faithful feathered friend. This chummy crow is even able to approximate speech via expressive cawing, and the delightfully engaging boy-bird business might profitably have been expanded.

Dessaint and Taffin are rather more interested in resolving the stormy relationship between Pumpkin and his child, which involves flashbacks explaining the family´s tragic backstory, and interventions from the friendly, half-human, half-animal "spirits" of the forest - who include the boy´s late, now fawn-headed mother. Such mute, anthropomorphized presences endow proceedings with a visual flavor of Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki's creations, though Dessaint - who worked on 2011's Cesar-winning The Rabbi's Cat - largely sticks to a more conventional approach.

As supervised by artistic director Patrice Suau, backgrounds are lush and colorful in the style of 19th century French landscape painting - more Manet than Monet. By contrast the human characters, especially Pumpkin's scrawny, antenna-haired son and the t-shirt-sporting Manon, have a much more contemporary look, and indeed wouldn´t look massively out of place in a Peanuts cartoon. Simon Leclerc´s lively score strikes largely familiar notes in a production which pays faithful homage to its creative forebears without quite establishing a fresh voice or mythology of its own.

The lengthy period of production and post-production, par for the course with such animations, is meanwhile indicated not only by Chabrol's warm posthumous performance but also by a Pixar-style end-roll list of nearly thirty new arrivals.

Venue: San Sebastian - Donostia Film Festival, Spain (New Directors), September 23, 2012.

Production companies: Finalement, Walking the Dog
Jean Reno, Lorànt Deutsch, Isabelle Carré, Claude Chabrol, Chantal Neuwirth, Bruno Podalydès
Director / Editor: Jean-Christophe Dessaint

Screenwriter: Amandine Taffin, based on the novel by Jean-François Beauchemin
Producer: William Picot
Co-producer: Eric Goossens
Director of photography: Patrice Suau
Music: Simon Leclerc

Sales agent: Le Pacte, Paris
No MPAA rating,  95 minutes