With the end of the Second World War alpine orphan Sebastian (Félix Bossuet) and his faithful big white dog Belle eagerly await the return of his beloved Angelina (Margeaux Châtelier) from serving with the French Resistance. Tragic news reaches her father César (Tchéky Karyo) as it appears Angelina has been killed in a plane crash. Sebastian refuses to believe it. He persuades César to mount an aerial search. To do this the pair seek out the only pilot in the region César has heard of, the ill-tempered, self-serving Pierre (Thierry Neuvic) who also happens to be Sebastian's long-lost father.
Revisiting the children's books created by French actress, writer and director Cécil Aubry, the first Belle & Sebastian (2013) was a huge hit with audiences in France hence the inevitable sequel has a substantially larger budget. Filmed once again in the picturesque Haute-Maurienne-Vanoise valley, the glorious alpine scenery still stirs the heart. As does the cosy rural community and the chemistry between gifted child actor Félix Bossuet and that big lovable mutt remains magical even if Belle & Sebastian: The Adventure Continues is a very different movie. The sequel boasts a noticeably richer colour palette and abandons the naturalistic tone wildlife documentary filmmaker Nicolas Vanier established in the first film. New director Christian Duguay introduces the same fast cutting and showy camera tricks found in his action films. The Canadian born Duguay began his career with two made-for-TV sequels to David Cronenberg's brain-bursting classic Scanners (1981) then segued into an early Pierce Brosnan vehicle Live Wire (1992) and cult Philip K. Dick adaptation Screamers (1995) before his ridiculous snowboarding action romp Extreme Ops (2002). More recently he has come to specialize in award-winning TV biopics including Coco Chanel (2008) with Shirley MacLaine, Augustine: The Decline of the Roman Empire (2010) and Hitler: The Rise of Evil (2003) and made the jump into French cinema with showjumping drama Jappeloup (2013).
Despite a snappier pace the sequel wisely does not go the all-out-action route and stays true to the tone of Aubry's original stories: genteel, folksy and character driven. As happened with the first installment, critics sneered that the film reflecting nothing of today's world. But since when were family films required to tackle topical issues? Judging from the enthusiastic audience response, a great many clearly want to lose themselves in a simple feelgood story about a boy and his dog. The film does not pretend to be anything more than handsomely crafted family fare and, taken on that level, succeeds. Although the thrust of the plot is the search for Angelina, melodramatic revelations derail things to the point where the story does tend to meander. In a rare instance of foolishness, Sebastian and Belle stow away on board Pierre's plane and inadvertently force a crash-landing. Whereupon the reluctant companions continue their journey on foot through to the Italian portion of the Alps where Belle bravely foils a bear attack on Gabriella (Thylane Blondeau), a pretty Italian girl disguised as a boy. Gabriella (who, in a disarming acknowledgement of the harsher aspects of life, adopts her disguise so the all-male workers at the lumber camp where her father works will "leave her alone") shares a feisty, combative relationship with ten year old Sebastian. She calls him pipsqueak but teaches him new survival skills and comes to see him in a new light. As indeed does Pierre once the truth comes out.
Initially Sebastian balks at Pierre who comes across rude, selfish and horror of horrors, a dog-hater! Naturally he does not turn out to be complete swine but rather a bruised, sensitive, vulnerable hero whose bluster hides a man trying to do the best he can. Early on the film establishes an interesting idea when Angelina frets her war experiences will make her unrecognizable to the innocent Sebastian. While the script regrettably does not explore this in any great depth, there is a running theme woven throughout where characters keep insisting life does not turn out the way we always want while Sebastian continues to believe in miracles. And why wouldn't he? He is friends with a miracle dog. True to the source Belle performs remarkable feats beyond most ordinary dogs although the film stops short of the fondly remembered 1981 Japanese anime that had her flying across vast chasms and performing martial arts flips in combat. Duguay stages an impressive night-time homage to Charles Laughton's cult classic Night of the Hunter (1955) when the river-rafting waifs happen across animals fleeing a forest fire and a suspenseful sequence with them trapped in a raging inferno. Rather cheekily the finale steals a gag from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).