'Snowtime!': Film Review

Courtesy of CarpeDiem Film & TV
The target audience of grade-schoolers should find it memorable.

A popular 30-year-old French-Canadian children’s film receives an animated remake.

For the schoolkids in the mountain village where the animated action of Snowtime! unfolds, winter break is a time for war games. It’s either that or succumb to boredom. The movie, fortunately, doesn’t succumb to the frenetic busyness that drives a lot of animated features. Director Jean-François Pouliot isn’t afraid of stillness or silence or painful moments, even as he whips up plenty of goofy stuff too.

The film’s humor and high jinks are aimed at viewers in the 6-10 age group — dog farts and brain freeze get their share of screen time. But, in the tradition of classic family fare, the story also delivers an unexpectedly sobering life lesson.

A remake of La Guerre des Tuques (The Dog Who Stopped the War), a live-action French-Canadian kids’ pic that topped Canada’s box office in 1984, Snowtime! features an engaging, mildly throwback visual scheme and spirited voice work from a cast led by Sandra Oh and Disney Channel star Ross Lynch. Screening in Sundance ahead of its Feb. 19 stateside theatrical bow, the movie will click with small fry.

Parents have no speaking roles, or even onscreen appearances, in this kids’ tale, which revolves around the snow fortress that roly-poly brainiac Frankie (Oh) designs. His schoolmates split into two teams, one to defend the castle-like structure, the other bent on attacking it. Leading the opposition gang is the otherwise gentle Luke (Angela Gallupo), an 11-year-old whose bugle is a keepsake of the father he barely knew, a casualty of an unnamed war.

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As to the kids’ warfare, in which the snowball is the weapon of choice, it’s boredom-busting fun, injected with a growing awareness of the possible consequences (ice balls are dangerous!). In the screenplay by Normand Canac-Marquis and Paul Risacher, the lessons are delivered with a light allegorical touch. There’s also a budding tween romance between Luke and new girl Sophie (Lucinda Davis), while her spitfire younger sister Lucy (Gallupo) emotes. A set of twins (Heidi Lynne Weeks) speak in stereo, disruptive peacenik Nicky (Elisabeth MacRae) tries to end the battles, gadget-loving Manolo (Sonja Ball) doesn’t like sharing, and Piers (Lynch) is devoted to his sweet Saint Bernard, Cleo, whose wacko style of playing fetch makes for a lively action sequence.

Though the story’s midsection, with its shifting alliances and reversals, feels distended, the movie offers well-defined characters and an inventive sense of earthbound fun, as well as poignant moments. A number by Quebec’s own Celine Dion complements the climactic turn of events. Onscreen, Luke picks up his bugle and plays taps — but not before a telling moment of hesitancy, effectively understated.

Directing his first animated film, Pouliot (La Grande Séduction) brings the village and the kids to vibrant life. With co-director François Brisson, an experienced animator, he puts a cartoonish spin on wintry Currier and Ives landscapes. The CG animation pays special attention to the play of light outdoors and in the interiors of the kids’ shared spaces (the fort, a barn). The human figures have doll-smooth surfaces, but there’s fine detail in the textures of their knitted clothing, as in the snow, a character in its own right. The sound design gets the crunch and whoosh of kids at winter play, a fine accompaniment to the actors' exuberance.

Production company: CarpeDiem Film & TV
Cast: Ross Lynch, Sandra Oh, Angela Gallupo, Lucinda Davis, Sonja Ball, Don Shepherd, Jenna Wheeler, Heidi Lynne Weeks, Elisabeth MacRae, Holly Gauthier
Director: Jean-François Pouliot
Co-director: François Brisson
Screenwriters: Normand Canac-Marquis, Paul Risacher
English adaptation: Claire Holden Rothman
Based on a screenplay by Roger Cantin and Danyele Patenaude
Producer: Marie-Claude Beauchamp
Executive producers: Marie-Claude Beauchamp, Normand Thauvette, Paul Risacher, Patrick Roy, Jeff Sackman
Editor: Robert Yates
Composers: Loi Painchaud and Jorane   

Rated PG, 82 minutes