Review: ‘The Dog, the General and the Birds’

Exquisitely bittersweet and charmingly rendered tale, adapted by vet scripter Tonino Guerra from his own children's book, functions beautifully as animated entertainment and a narrative undertaking with a timelessly pertinent message. Shortish feature for all ages should travel with little difficulty.

A retired Russian general makes amends with pragmatic and poetic results in “The Dog, the General and the Birds.” Exquisitely bittersweet and charmingly rendered tale, adapted by vet scripter Tonino Guerra from his own children’s book, functions beautifully as animated entertainment and a narrative undertaking with a timelessly pertinent message. Low on dialogue and highly pleasing on the visual front, shortish feature for all ages should travel with little difficulty. Toon preemed as a special showing at last fall’s Venice Film Festival and has been playing in Paris since late October.

In 1812, the general drove Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops out of Russia with an ingenious but cruel ruse. As the French approached Moscow — where they planned to restock desperately needed food and supplies — the general set fire to birds and sent them flying. The birds, in turn, set Moscow ablaze, forcing Napoleon to make a U-turn.

By 1836, the general has retired in St. Petersburg, but subsequent generations of pigeons and other birds have never forgotten how he treated so many of their ancestors. They editorialize by pooping on the general whenever he leaves his apartment.

Reliving the terrible battle in nightmares every night, the general carries an umbrella by day to protect himself from the city’s vindictive birds. Until, that is, he meets a dog whose master has died. The dog barks at the birds, which keep their distance. But the elderly general doesn’t think he has the energy to take care of a dog.

In a beautifully animated sleigh trip to the countryside, the general finds a home for the dog away from the city. But the general and dog (named Bonaparte, in honor of his old foe) are eventually reunited for a heroic mission to free all the captive birds in St. Petersburg. Down-to-the-wire finale is thrilling.

Lyrical animation has a hand-drawn quality and Chagall-like creative perspective that are at one with the elegant pacing and slightly melancholy score by Guerra’s son Andrea. Evocative backgrounds are inspired by the illustrations of scenic designer and graphic artist Serguei Barkhin.

The Dog, the General and the Birds

France-Italy

Production

A Bac Films release (in France) of a Solaris, Roissy Films, Prima, Teva, Gam Films production with participation of Canal Plus and RAI Cinema. (International sales: Roissy Film, Paris.) Produced by Stephane Tchal Gadjieff, Raphael Berdugo. Directed by Francis Nielsen. Screenplay, Tonino Guerra, based on his illustrated children's book "The General and Bonaparte."

Crew

Artistic adviser, Andrei Krajanovski; music, Andrea Guerra; assistant director, Willem Sperstra. Reviewed at Quartier Latin, Paris, Jan. 4, 2004. (In Venice Film Festival 2003 -- special screening.) Running time: 75 MIN. (French dialogue version)

With

Narrator: Philippe Noiret.
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