War is an extremely mild form of hell in “Snowtime!,” an animated adaptation of the French-Canadian family film “The Dog Who Stopped the War,” which has been a seasonal mainstay for Canuck children for more than 30 years. Set in a mountain idyll where kids frolic outdoors all day while their (largely unseen) parents are home with hot chocolate at the ready, the pic concerns a two-week snowball fight that doubles as an allegory for human conflict. Covering the emotional spectrum between dog farts on one end and tragedy on the other reps a tonal challenge that “Showtime!” can’t pull off, despite a gentler touch than most kiddie fare of its kind. Passing through Sundance en route to a Stateside theatrical run next month, the film will play fine to the very young, but it’s far too anemic to trigger a box office avalanche.
Described as “the greatest village in the whole wide world” by the 11-year-old narrator, the scenic and charmingly off-kilter setting is by far the film’s most appealing aspect. For small children, “Snowtime!” taps into the fantasy of limitless playtime in a winter wonderland, where they can build (and attack) elaborate forts and other let their imaginations run wild, free from parental supervision. Over a two-week period, the characters learn about teamwork and friendship, and pick up more sobering lessons about coping with loss and arriving at a lasting peace. Those are all fine and surprisingly advanced values for a film aimed at such a young audience, but a deficit of energy and imagination keeps them from landing with much force.
To call the battle site a mere “fort” would be an insult to the precocious, four-eyed Frankie (voiced by Sandra Oh), who engineers an ice fortress with towering keeps, security cameras and other mechanized bells and whistles. The children of the village divide into two teams: Frankie and two new girls in town, Sophie (Lucinda Davis) and her younger sister Lucy (Angela Gallupo), are the foundation of the small team defending the castle while Luke (Gallupo), a serious-minded 11-year-old, leads a larger contingent behind his late father’s bugle. On the sidelines, there’s Piers (Ross Lynch, of Disney Channel fame) and his eager but flatulent Saint Bernard, Cleo, who’s a bounding agent of chaos in the early going and a figure of pathos toward the end.
Amid the lighter moments of fart jokes and slapstick comedy, “Snowtime!” makes room a tentative puppy-dog romance between Sophie and Luke and some playful yet serious consideration of war ethics. (The key line “It’s just a war, there’s no reason to hurt anyone” is paraphrased from the live-action original.) As the conflict escalates, the artillery gets more sophisticated than wagonloads of puffballs: Chuck (Don Shepherd), the thick-headed enforcer on Luke’s team, stockpiles wall-smashing iceballs and Frankie’s team retaliates by injecting their snowballs with paint. By the fateful final battle, lines have crossed on both sides.
“Snowtime!” has a generic CGI look familiar to Nick Jr. and other television outlets — bright and fluidly rendered, with odd-angled structures and blocky characters propped up by noodle legs — but it does insert a hand-drawn flashback to Luke at his lowest moment, holding his mother’s hand during his father’s military funeral. Luke’s sadness and his difficulty coming to terms with war carry over into the epic snowball fight, but director Jean-Francois Pouliot and his screenwriters, Normand Canac-Marquis and Paul Risacher, can’t stick the allegory. They lay the groundwork for a third-act mishap, but the added gravitas is too much for such an inconsequential film to bear.
The wall-to-wall adult contemporary montage music — composed and arranged by Eloi Painchaud and Jorane, and performed by artists such as Walk Off the Earth, Simple Plan and Celine Dion — is both a crutch and an anchor.