Belle & Sebastian: Next Generation

Belle and Seb (Robinson Mensah-Rouanet) in Belle & Sebastian: Next Generation. Image courtesy Icon

PG, 97 minutes, subtitles

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

When no one else understands or appreciates you, a big hound at least as big as yourself and likely heavier, is a best friend ever. So it is, once again, for the fourth film in this popular franchise that began in 2013, based on the book by Cecile Aubry that was followed by a television series in the 1960s.

The new biped in the lead role of Sebastian, now that actor Felix Bossuet has outgrown it, is Robinson Mensah-Rouanet, a mop-haired gamin who was 10 at the time of the shoot. No doubt there were multiple Great Pyrenean dogs in the role of Belle, the huge, shaggy-haired white dog who shares the lead with him.

A denizen of skatepark and street, not getting on so well with his maman or other female carers

Aubry’s book, set in a remote village in the French Alps during the final years of WWII, was about a boy and his dog among Resistance fighters, Nazis and Jewish people fleeing the holocaust. The latest film directed by Pierre Core centres on the present day, with a young Parisian, a denizen of skate park and street, who is not getting on so well with his maman, or his other female carers.

Directing the screenplay co-written with Alexandra Coffre, Core has made a family film that can be sharp and funny, is refreshingly free of sentiment, and at times is even a bit tough on the small protagonist. He could do with some hugs and bisoux from his immediate family of adult females.

Little Seb cannot help get into strife but his heart is in the right place. When a friend gets in touch to meet near the skatepark, he tears out the door, board under his arm, but remembers to release the moth he had trapped in an upended vase. At the park he notices an older teenager heavying a young boy, so he steals and rides away on the older boy’s skateboard to distract him.

Local kids take him for a clueless, snooty little Parisian and set him up for a fall

For his trouble, Seb lands a summer holiday away with his formidable grandmother, Corinne (Michele Laroque), in the French Alps while his cranky mother Cecile (Caroline Anglade) heads to Prague for work. His rock-climb instructor aunt, Noemie (Alice David) is also in the Alps but she wriggles free of the vague promises she makes and does her own thing. Stuck with a strangely withdrawn grandma who treats him like an inconvenience, asking ‘too many questions’, Seb tries to hang out with the local kids but they take him for a clueless, snooty little Parisian and set him up for a fall.

He is in luck, though. It’s through this set-up that he meets Belle then witnesses her getting a beating from her owner, Gas (Syrus Shahidi). He is, in some awkward racial profiling, the bully of the piece. When Seb opens the cage where she is confined, and releases her, Belle heads toward the wild uplands before they meet again.

The soaring French Alps captured in Belle & Sebastian: Next Generation are quite the place to roam free in summertime. Through the lens of cinematographer Gilles Porte the mountains look magnificent. How could they not? When Seb must help Corinne relocate her flock of sheep to the higher ground for better pasture, there is a surprise trip up in the chairlift to the peaks above the snowline where the alpine world is even more breathtaking. The brutality towards animals and the plot that neighbouring landholders are hatching to buy Corinne’s farm look very grubby against such an uplifting, beautiful backdrop.

There is a quite graphic depiction of the fight between a pack of wolves resident in the high country area and Belle as she tries to protect Seb and his grandma’s flock of sheep. These scenes and the film’s subtitles suggest that this engaging family entertainment, invited to international festivals for children’s film, is unlikely to suit the very young.

There is a little confusion between the title in French and its translation into English (from new to next) but it won’t get in the way of this engaging and refreshing family adventure. The French Alps are light years away from the urban intensity of Paris and the city-country divide is pretty wide, but this story about a cheeky, knowing city kid with an Insta account shows he can still have something to learn.

First published in the Canberra Times on 2 July 2023. Jane’s reviews are also published by Rotten Tomatoes