"Babel" is a muddle. Confusing mix is not helped by classic co-production woes, with some thesps speaking in heavy French accents, others sounding like Canucks and one lead role dubbed into English. Though it has its moments, the adventure is too violent for youngsters and not exciting enough for teens. B.O. for this $ 20 million.

An odd mix of fantasy, hocus-pocus philosophy, special effects and family drama, “Babel” is a muddle. Confusing mix is not helped by classic co-production woes, with some thesps speaking in heavy French accents, others sounding like Canucks and one lead role dubbed into English. Though it has its moments, the adventure is too violent for youngsters and not exciting enough for teens. B.O. for this $ 20 million.

French-Canadian co-production was sluggish in the wake of its April 7 bow in France, and North American prospects look even less bright. Pic, which was the closing film of Sprockets, the Toronto Film Festival for Children, will have more of an impact on TV than the bigscreen.

Strange yarn opens with voiceover explaining that the Babels, bizarre, 4 -foot-tall creatures, and humans used to live together happily. Then the humans ruined it all by building a gargantuan tower designed to defy God, provoking His fury. He plunged the Stone of Babel deep into the ground, divided humans by giving them different languages and drove the Babels underground by making them unable to stand direct light.

Fast-forward a few millenniums and it’s a few hours before a lunar eclipse on the last day of 1999. Three gray-haired Babels are zooming around the sewer system of an unnamed North American city making plans to protect the Babel Stone , which apparently is in grave danger whenever there’s an eclipse. But their parchment map to the stone’s site is stolen by a pesky mutt, who brings it to his master, ad exec Patrick (Michel Jonasz). In one of many silly plot twists, Patrick is inspired by the old map to dream up a new campaign for one of his accounts.

Plotting desperately to retrieve the document, the Babels soon team up with Patrick’s son, David (Mitchell David Rothpan). Meanwhile, power-hungry media mogul Nemrod (Tcheky Karyo) is pushing ahead with his nefarious scheme to steal the stone. Along the way, two of David’s teachers play prominent roles, with Mrs. Karloff (Sheena Larkin) heading up Nemrod’s security force and Alice (Maria de Medeiros) helping David fight off the bad guys.

Even with a healthy suspension of disbelief, this is a paper-thin narrative full of holes. It consists mainly of chase sequences and unconvincing violent altercations, with the Babels and their buddies inevitably escaping relatively unscathed. An inspired seg in which the squat Babels do their best ZZ Top imitation is one of the rare sparks of humor in the pic.

“Babel” was shot in Montreal in simultaneous English and French versions, with most thesps handling their own dialogue in the English version. The one notable exception is Gallic actor Jonasz, who was dubbed into English.

Cast is lackluster. De Medeiros has little to do except look good, while Jonasz, whose presence is hurt by the dubbed voice, is somewhat more likable as Patrick. Karyo is way over the top as eye-popping madman Nemrod.

The only bright light is Rothpan as 10-year-old David, one of the few characters given something approaching a fully developed persona. Helmer Pullicino penned the bombastic score, and the numerous special effects get the job done with little panache.

Babel

France-Canada

Production

An Ima Film/Allegro Film production, with the participation of Le Studio Canal Plus, France 3 Cinema, France 2 Cinema, Telefilm Canada, Ministere de la Culture et de la Communication, Procirep and the Centre National de la Cinematographie. (International sales: UGC Intl., Paris.) Produced by Georges Benayoun. Executive producer, Jacques Methe. Directed by Gerard Pullicino. Screenplay, Pullicino, Serge Richez, Vincent Lambert.

Crew

Camera (color), Eric Cayla; editor, Laurent Rouan; music, Pullicino; art director, Guy Lalande; costume designer, Madeline Fontaine, Francesca Chamberland; visual effects, Christian Guillon; sound, Patrick Rousseau, Veronique Gabillaud. Reviewed at the Coscient screening room, Montreal, April 14 , 1999. (In Sprockets, Toronto Film Festival for Children.) Running time: 94 MIN.

With

David ..... Mitchell David Rothpan Alice ..... Maria de Medeiros Nemrod ..... Tcheky Karyo Patrick ..... Michel Jonasz
With: Sheena Larkin, Bronwen Booth, Garry Robbins, Mark Camacho, Maggie Castle. (English dialogue)
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