During one week last year, two film versions of Louis Pergaud’s popular 1912 book “War of the Buttons” dueled for pride of place on French theater screens. Having hit the American critical and commercial jackpot with French imports like The Artist and The Intouchables, movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was happy to snatch up the Buttons guaranteed by helmer Christophe Barratier to be an entirely “new” take on the familiar story (already filmed three times) about country kids playing at war.
“New” means setting Buttons back to 1944, when real carnage and genocide could cast enlightening dark shadows over child’s play. Unfortunately, Barratier’s reinterpretation errs on the side of heavy-handed, unpersuasive moral lessons. He slathers sunshine over every shadow; feel-good sentimentality defeats harsh reality at every turn. Cute-as-a-button French children, picturesque snapshots of the Auvergne’s happy valleys, sappy Disney-sounding music, the reduction of evil to schoolyard bullying — this War of the Buttons is glossy and bland, a French pastry for folks who prefer their parables sweet, with no bite.
Young Lebrac (Jean Texier) comes as close to being the star of Buttons as anyone. His attractiveness, hints of character and coming-of-age arc give us something to connect to, while one-dimensional grown-ups mostly stand around posing like dramatic signposts. A big, gawky kid, he’s the class troublemaker: Seething with contempt for his farmer father (Kad Merad) — who’s not at the front — Lebrac blows off steam by taking up arms against the Velrans, a gang led by an equally militant ruffian nicknamed the Aztec (Thomas Goldberg).