Good character animation, strong voice thesping and a fully engrossing storyline elevate “Day of the Crows” well above the usual run of animated kid-friendly fare. Charming without undue whimsy, expressive without inordinate schmaltz, and dealing with the true stuff of fairy tales — death, unloving parent figures and hostile social forces — Jean-Christophe Dessaint’s wild-child-themed toon sends a feral youngster into a real world whose existence he never suspected. Opting for the airily fantastic in an age of big-budget, CGI-enhanced hyperrealism, this hand-drawn pic could captivate children and adults alike, meriting an original-language arthouse run.

Adapted from Jean-Francois Beauchemin’s novel, the story follows a nameless kid (voiced by Lorant Deutsch), scrawny and nearly “Rugrats”-style-bald, bounding through the forest on all fours with lightning reflexes and a cheerful willingness to be guided by his hulking, growling, barbaric giant of a father, Pumpkin (Jean Reno). Luckily, the boy’s sentimental education is supplemented by apparitions from “the world beyond,” silent beings with animal heads but human hands and bodies. His spiritual advisers include the loving, doe-headed spirit of his dead mother and a wise, cat-faced gentleman by a riverbank.

When Pumpkin breaks his leg, the boy is nudged by his otherworldly friends to leave the forest. Having been told all his life he would disappear if he set foot outside its borders, he nevertheless sets out, dragging his unconscious father behind him, winding up in a nearby village whose inhabitants recoil from his odoriferous person.
He is taken in by the kindly village doctor (Claude Chabrol, in a role undertaken shortly before his death), who fends off angry villagers led by the vindictive Mme. Bramble (Chantal Neuwirth). The townfolk, who in their fear-filled venom appear to have come straight out of an Henri-Georges Clouzot film, have recognized in Pumpkin an old enemy (something referenced in the stormy nighttime sequence that opens the picture).

Only the doctor and his young daughter, Manon (Isabelle Carre), are on the side of the angels. Dessaint (who served as assistant director on “”The Rabbi’s Cat”) lavishes the film’s best character animation and dialogue on the two kids as they gradually develop mutual affection and protectiveness. The wild boy’s socialization is seen from Manon’s perspective as she assumes responsibility for the kid’s integration, obsessing over proper nose-blowing techniques while completely missing other aspects of his unfamiliarity with civilization. When he first glimpses himself in a mirror, his expressions pass rapidly through puzzlement, trepidation, recognition and pleasure as his reflected image mimics his movements. Unfortunately, animated films with such subtle behavioral niceties and occasional graphic experimentation (such as with the enchanted forest’s pastoral watercolor look) buck enormous odds in a studio-dominated toon market.

Day of the Crows
Le Jour des corneilles
(Animated – France-Belgium-Luxembourg-Canada)

Reviewed at New York Children’s Film Festival, March 24, 2013. (Also in Rendez-Vous with French Cinema; 2012 San Sebastian Film Festival.) Running time: 90 MIN.

A Le Pacte release of a Finalement, Melusine Prods., Max Films, Walking the Dog production in co-production with Vezon Investissements, Rhones-Alpes Cinema, Gebeka Films, UFilm. (International sales: Le Pacte, Paris.) Produced by William Picot. Executive producers, Picot, Marc Jousset. Co-producers, Eric Goosesens, Stephan Roelants, Luc Vandal, Marc Bonny, Roger Frappier, Roebben Anton, Adrian Politowski, Gilles Waterkeyn.

Directed by Jean-Christophe Dessaint. Screenplay, Amadine Taffin, loosely adapted from the novel by Jean-Francois Beauchemin. (Color, widescreen); editor, Opportune Taffin; music, Simon Leclerc; sound (Dolby Digital) Nicolas Becker; re-recording mixer, Emmanuel Croset; sound editor, Damien Boitel, Prian; animation directors, Nicolas Debray, Dessaint, Victor Ens; animation supervisors, Nilsen Robin, Debray, Ens, Daniel Alcaraz; layout artist, Jean-Michel Boesch; background layouts, Mael Le Call, Philippe Dentz; color, artistic director, Patrice Suau.

Voices: Jean Reno, Lorant Deutsch, Isabelle Carre, Claude Chabrol, Chantal Neuwirth, Bruno Podalydes.