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‘Belle and Sebastian’ Breaks Out in France

French boy and dog adventure-thriller one of the few homegrown French hits this year.

LONDON – It might be a case of too little too late.

Belle and Sebastian,” the latest big screen makeover of a children’s classic, is proving a breakout hit in France, running up a first five-day Euros 3.1 million ($4.2 million) at the Gallic box office.

But its first frame, however encouraging, won’t give a big enough leg-up to Gaul’s theatrical market to reboot much the worst year at the French box office in the last five years.

Released by Gaumont Distribution on Dec. 18, “Belle’s” first-frame performance failed to best two holdovers: Warner Bros.’ “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” ($7.2 million) and Disney’s “Frozen” ($5.3 million).

But it still played strongly enough to become the biggest bow of the frame.

“Belle’s” B.O. surge is no head-scratcher. The latest adaptation of a children’s TV classic written and directed by French actress Cecile Aubry, the lead in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Venice Golden Lion winner “Manon,” “Belle” is set in 1942, and tells the tale of how a six-year-old boy and his big white dog thwart dastardly Nazi attempts to capture French Resistance fighters.

Sumptuously shot in the sweeping Rhone-Alps, it is wholesome, straight-arrow tykes-with-the-family-in-tow entertainment, and a nostalgia-fest for auds old enough to have caught the 1965 TV series, where Aubry’s son, who appears in this year’s movie, played Sebastian.

Helmed by Nicolas Vanier (“The Last Trapper”), and competing at the Rome’s Festival’s Alice in the City section, “Belle” is, however, one of just a clutch of French fare that have impacted France’s box office this year.

Hits cut two ways: One is classic for-the-family boy and dog (“Belle”) or man and horse drama (the “Sea Biscuit”-ish “Jappeloup,” with Guillaume Canet, which grossed $15.7 million).

But it’s comedies that, as ever, have made most of the running: High-school laffer “Les Profs” ($34.1 million), homely retro family fun packed “Billy and Buddy” ($17.3 million), knocked-up farce “Nine Month’s Stretch” ($16.9 million), and Guillaume Gallienne’s coming-out crowdpleaser “Me, Myself and Mum” (pictured, $15.4 million) based on his one-man show.

These are solid-to-strong figures, especially for the lower-budgeted hits. They pale, however, before earlier decade perfs such as “The Intouchables’” $170.0 million and $70.4 million for Dany Boon’s “Nothing To Declare,” both notched up in 2011.

So, Hollywood pic performances notwithstanding, total 2013 box office in France was down 7% through November.

Overall cinema-theater receipts through November were 7.2% and about $115 million down on same period 2012 with 171.55 million tix sold. French films first-eleven-month market share – 33.2% – is substantially below 2012’s through-November 42%.

Such a soft year for French cinema-going will no doubt provide one of early 2014’s talking points.

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