Thanks to a cast with notable depth, an unusually smart script and a couple of neat ghosts with French accents, "Dead Aviators" is a small but near-ideal example of quality family fare that can be enjoyed by young and older viewers. World preemed at Sprockets, the Toronto Film Festival for Children, pic isn't likely to fly too far theatrically. Modest tale is much better suited to make a smooth landing on the small screen, where it should click with international programmers looking for upscale family material. Film is skedded to air later this summer on Showtime under the title "Restless Spirits" and will then air on Canuck pubcaster CBC next season under its original title.

Thanks to a cast with notable depth, an unusually smart script and a couple of neat ghosts with French accents, “Dead Aviators” is a small but near-ideal example of quality family fare that can be enjoyed by young and older viewers. World preemed at Sprockets, the Toronto Film Festival for Children, pic isn’t likely to fly too far theatrically. Modest tale is much better suited to make a smooth landing on the small screen, where it should click with international programmers looking for upscale family material. Film is skedded to air later this summer on Showtime under the title “Restless Spirits” and will then air on Canuck pubcaster CBC next season under its original title.

Appealing ghost story is a major change of pace for Canuck helmer David Wellington (“I Love a Man in Uniform,” “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”), who gives the material a welcome sophistication. In flashback to 1927, French war hero Lt. Charles Nungesser (Lothaire Bluteau) and his navigator, Francois Coli (Michel Monty), take off from an airfield outside Paris in a single-engine biplane in a bid to make the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic. But the two flying aces never make it to New York, disappearing forever.

Yarn jumps forward some seven decades as Katie Penhallow (Juliana Wimbles) and her 6-year-old brother arrive in Porter’s Point, Newfoundland, for a visit with their grandmother Lydia (Marsha Mason). Twelve-year-old Katie is in the midst of a major-league pre-adolescent crisis, making her sullen, angry and uncommunicative. Her brother is emotionally stunted as well; both are still trying to come to grips with the death of their father a few years back. A test pilot, he died in a plane crash.

Katie heads out to Porter’s Pond one night to meet some of the local kids and instead bumps into the lost French airmen, who look like they’ve just crashed into the pond. Continually reliving the fatal crash, they’re apparently condemned to wander the banks of the remote pond. For the first time in ages, Katie becomes enthusiastic about something and vows to help them escape, a monumental task that involves pulling the battered aircraft from the pond.

One of the charms of “Dead Aviators” is how Wellington and scriptwriter Semi Chellas neatly balance the dramatic elements with lighter, comic moments. Nungesser’s snooty aristocratic personality is the object of a fair bit of gentle joking, for instance, which helps keep the story from becoming too hokey. Pic’s theme of emotional coming-of-age is tried-and-true, but it never seems contrived or cloying.

That’s thanks in no small measure to Wimbles, who’s great as the confused kid , striking just the right mix of petulance and innocence. Bluteau is memorable as the impossibly arrogant Nungesser, who sulks around with no small amount of panache for much of the time. Mason makes her presence felt in a smaller role as the grandmother.

Ron Sures’ score is subdued but effective, while cameraman Andre Pienaar does a good job of making the main woods location look suitably misty and magical.

Dead Aviators

(FAMILY FANTASY -- CANADIAN)

Production

An Accent Entertainment/Temple Street production, in association with Showtime Networks, Hallmark Entertainment and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and with the participation of the Canadian Television Fund, CTF License Fee Program and CAVCO. (International sales: Hallmark Entertainment, L.A.) Produced by Susan Cavan, Patrick Whitley. Co-producer, Sheila Hockin. Directed by David Wellington. Screenplay, Semi Chellas, based on a story by Chellas, Gail Collins.

Crew

Camera (color), Andre Pienaar; editor, Jeff Warren; music , Ron Sures; production designer, Tamara Deverell; costume designer, Noreen Landry; sound, Jane Tattersall, Orest Sushko, Lou Solakofski; casting, Susan Forrest. Reviewed on videocassette, Montreal, April 13, 1999. (In Sprockets, the Toronto Film Festival for Children.) Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Charles Nungesser ..... Lothaire Bluteau Francois Coli ..... Michel Monty Katie ..... Juliana Wimbles Lydia ..... Marsha Mason
With: Leslie Hope, Ben Cook, Eugene Lipinski, Brooke Johnson, Dan Lett, James Allodi.
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