High up in the French Alps during the Second World War, a peaceful little village is taken over by a platoon of German soldiers. Six year old Sebastian (Félix Bossuet) helps his adopted father César (Tchéky Karyo) herd sheep across the hills and assist the struggling local community, including pretty baker Angélina (Margeaux Châtelier) who has an unwanted admirer in German Lieutenant Peter (Andreas Pietschmann) and rugged French doctor Guillaume (Dimitri Storoge) who secretly guides Jewish refugees across the mountains safely to Switzerland. Apart from the Nazis the locals are alarmed by an outbreak of sheep killings and lay the blame on a huge stray dog at large in the wild. But Sebastian befriends the beast and finds a trusting, gentle soul whom he christens Belle. As the Nazis continue persecuting the local population to weed out resistance fighters and refugees, Belle and Sebastian lend their help to thwart a common enemy.
Aside from inspiring the name of a certain sublime Scottish indie pop band, the series of children's books created by actress, writer and director Cécile Aubry also sired a French live action television series in the Fifties and a Japanese anime show that was equally popular when it aired on Nickelodeon in the Eighties and early Nineties. Now we have a big-budget feature length adaptation filmed on location in one of France's most beautiful areas: the Haute-Maurienne-Vanoise valley where the mountain scenery is quite breathtaking in its grandeur. French critics sneered at the cute kid and canine antics but the public lapped it up, so a sequel: Belle & Sebastian: The Adventure Continues (2015) swiftly followed. Though undeniably sentimental the film is also endearingly earnest in the kinship of innocence between children and animals.
The plot takes a fair while to kick into gear and in the long run proves fairly aimless. Despite the tensions wrought by the Nazi occupation the mood is cosy throughout and the focus largely on the bonding between a boy and his dog. As such the film suffers a lack of urgency, taking time out to savour a love song sung by Sebastian for Belle. If the plotting is tepid the action keeps moving along thanks to the brisk direction of Nicolas Vanier. His experience as a wilderness explorer and documentary filmmaker is apparent in fascinating scenes that detail the minutiae of rural life and survival in the wild. Central to the film is the humanist belief that no-one is beyond redemption be they man or animal. Belle herself has a genuine magical quality, a charming though not saccharine screen presence that is borderline ethereal. Both boy and dog are a real find. Gifted child actor Félix Boussuet delivers a remarkably expressive, naturalistic performance. Without ever milking our emotions he engages our empathy, whether sharing scenes with a grizzled and endearing Tcheky Karyo or his compelling canine sidekick. Nostalgists may also delight in a supporting role essayed by the original Sebastian, Cécile Aubrey's real-life son: Mehdi El Glaoui.
Also impressive is Margeaux Châtelier. As the courageous and resourceful Angélina she has by far the most intriguing story arc. Indeed the film's latter third shifts its focus onto her efforts to help an imperiled Jewish family flee across the Alps into Switzerland before Belle and Sebastian step in to save everyone from wolves and frostbite. Aside from one quite moving twist that is almost thrown away, Belle & Sebastian is less fixated with dramatic fireworks than picturesque charm. Strictly Sunday tea-time fare, it rarely excites but is never less than beguiling.