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Allegorical ‘Snowtime’ a fun — and heartbreaking — winter’s tale

Luke and Sophie in a scene from the Canadian animated feature "Snowtime" | SHOUT!Factory

In his provocative 1969 protest anthem, singer Edwin Starr once queried: “War … what is it good for?”

In the case of the Canadian animated feature “Snowtime,” which debuted at Sundance last month and makes its U.S. theatrical debut on Friday, war — if you’re a bunch of bored elementary school kids living in a bucolic snow-capped mountain village — is good for one thing: fending off winter break boredom.

Of course, the “war” in this case is the snowball fight to end all snowball fights between two teams of friends. One is led by Luke (voiced by Angela Galuppo), a soft-spoken 11-year-old who is dealing with the long-ago death of his father in an unnamed war. He carries the bugle used to play “Taps” at his father’s graveside service, and late at night he sits amid the haystacks in his barn, looking at photos from the service, fighting back tears and trying to make sense of it all. It is a wound that may never truly heal.

The “enemy” is led by Piers (voiced by Ross Lynch), a gangly easygoing lad whose best pal is his happy-go-lucky (and flatulent) St. Bernard named Cleo. Piers’ leadership is soon usurped by the new girl in town, the fiercely independent Sophie (voiced by Lucinda Davis), who along with her feisty little sister Lucy (also voiced by Galuppo) is drawn into the fierce rivalry. Their team takes refuge in a mindboggling snow fort/castle, designed by the school’s resident braniac Frank (voiced by Sandra Oh), a bespectacled genius who believes his fortress invincible. The team leaders decide it’s winner-take-all: whomever occupies the fort at the end of the battle are the champs.

The kids of “Snowtime”: Jack (from left), Luke, Manolo and Chuck. | SHOUT!Factory
The kids of “Snowtime”: Jack (from left), Luke, Manolo and Chuck. | SHOUT!Factory

Along for the ride are their fiercely loyal “troops”: the red-haired (and anti-war) twins Henry and George; the larger-than-life, loveable lug Chuck , who means well but sometimes can’t quite articulate his benevolent intentions; the hip and snarky Manolo, who loves his night-vision goggles more than pretty much anything else in the world; the soft-spoken Fran; Nicky, a peace activist if ever there was one; Daniel (an aspiring photojournalist); and Jack, Luke’s best friend and unflinching cheering section. Oh, and then there are “the Minis,” the snow-suited first-graders who join in the fray.

Combined they are a cross-section of practically every adolescent schoolyard “gang” of pals. They’re kids being kids, and winter break means doing what kids will do when they live in the “greatest village in the whole wide world” (according to the film’s opening voiceover), which happens to boast “tons of snow and the best friends ever.”

Based on the 32-year-old French-Canadian live-action hit film “La Guerre des Tuques (The Dog Who Stopped the War),” “Snowtime” is clearly targeted to 6- to 11-year-olds. Anyone younger may be disturbed by the film’s painful and unexpected turn of events; anyone older — and I’m talking of the ‘tweens out there — might find it slow and sorely lacking in the frenetic pace of most of today’s uber-sophisticated animated feature films with every CGI bell and whistle and manner of special-effects trickery Hollywood can muster. But that’s the charm (and the quandary) of this film. Sophisticated in its look and feel on the one hand (the warm hues and tones evoke a warmth that defies the wintry cold), it’s almost too retro for its own good on the other. The film’s minimalist score, with songs performed by Celine Dion, Simple Plan and Walk Off the Earth, among others, is quite soothing.

There are no grown-ups in the film, and that is deliberate. For this allegorical tale is told from the perspective of children, who first see the excitement of all-out war, and as the days go by come to see the futility of it all. Their friendships are tested, their battle methods questioned, the very meaning of “war” put to the ultimate test. In the end, the children will learn a valuable (and agonizingly costly) life lesson. As the Edwin Starr song so eloquently states, war is good for absolutely nothing. Especially when you’re a kid.

★★★

SHOUT!Factory presents a film directed by Jean-Francois Pouliot and Francois Brisson. Written by Normand Canac-Marquis and Paul Risacher, based on the film “La Guerre des Tuques (The Dog Who Stopped the War”). Running time: 82 minutes. Rated PG (for mild thematic elements and rude humor). Opening today at AMC South Barrington 30.

Posted Feb. 16, 2016.