Bill (voiced by Manu Payet) is an abandoned cocker spaniel longing for a home. As luck would have it, a family out on a country drive visit the pet store with their little son Boule (Charles Crombez). Though Papa (Franck Dubosc) and Mama (Marina Froïs) are less than enthusiastic, Boule persuades them to buy him the dog. Sharing a penchant for mischief, Boule and Bill cause endless mayhem but the family are happy. That is until Papa’s new job means a move to Paris prompting a whole heap of problems.
Created by Belgian writer-artist Jean Roba, Boule et Bill is a popular comic strip that has become the latest among the recent spate of French children’s classics adapted for the big screen. Set in 1976 (for no clear reason, given Roba first published his comic in 1959), the film sports that charming, vibrant retro colour palette common among such fare along with their nostalgia for an idealised past. This sense of nostalgia is reinforced by the soundrack which plays like a jukebox of vintage Franco-pop hits while composer Alexandre Azaria also tips his hat to, of all things, Ennio Morricone’s score for Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). As a family film, Boule & Bill is quirkier, more whimsical and less abrasive than similar Hollywood efforts. However, the plot is not too different from something like Beethoven (1992) or Marley & Me (2008), as Bill’s good-natured efforts to win over curmudgeonly Papa and Mama invariably end in disaster.
The film adds a few eccentric notes via Bill’s melancholy monologues and sage wisecracks alongside a sub-plot about Caroline, the family’s pet tortoise (voiced by Sara Girodeau), and her increasing sexual attraction to the handsome mutt. At heart though it is a story of domestic strife as the family abandon their bucolic home in some idyllic though anonymous region of France for life in a heartless grey tower block in Paris. The city of lights doesn’t really come across to well in this comedy with long-suffering Mama drawing the most sympathy as she is alternately berated by schoolteachers, inadvertently insulted by her well-meaning but hapless and self-involved husband, and driven round the bend by a particularly infuriating downstairs neighbour whose constant complaints scupper her job as a piano teacher. Driven to succeed, Papa grows increasingly alienated from his family until good old Bill sets him right before a third act twist establishes this is something of an origin story for the very comic book that inspired the film.
Co-directors Alexandre Charlot and Franck Magnier started out as writers on the French version of satirical puppet show Spitting Image, Les Guignols de L’info. More recently they scripted the horror film Maléfique (2002), hugely successful comedy Welcome to the Sticks (2008) and Asterix at the Olympic Games (2008). In their second directorial outing after oddball historical comedy-adventure Imogen McCarthery (2011), the pair pepper the film with elaborate slapstick set-pieces, surreal little visual gags (Bill’s impersonation of a stuffed dog is an undeniable highlight) and a skateboard chase (did French kids skateboard in the Seventies?) but none of this hides the fact that the plot is extremely thin. Still, one can’t fault a movie that features a tortoise ambling down a road singing the Brigitte Bardot-Serge Gainsbourg classic Harley Davidson.