For four times since 1962, filmmakers have brought Louis Pergaud's 1912 novel The War of the Buttons to the big screen — twice in 2011, confusingly enough. All versions of the story involve gangs of boys in small rural towns whose feuding escalates to larger battlefields and more adult moral terrain. For his take on The War of the Buttons, French director/co-writer Christophe Barratier transplants the tale to Nazi-occupied France in 1944 and lets World War II increasingly inform the boyish grudge match.
The war seems far away in The War of the Buttons' earliest scenes, which capture the timeless qualities of French country life. When two young boys encounter teenage poachers from a neighboring village, a long-standing rivalry flares up. After one encounter, scar-cheeked ringleader Lebrac (Jean Texier) cuts the buttons off one of the neighbor kids' clothes. For a while, the film unfolds with Little Rascals-style hijinks of kids being shoved into the fishing hole or harmlessly assailing each other with wooden swords. The boys also compete for the affections of pretty Violette (Ilona Bachelier), who's visiting her gorgeous godmother Simone (Laetitia Casta) under mysterious circumstances.
The War of the Buttons takes a darker turn when French collaborators arrest a Jewish family and Simone fusses at the lovelorn schoolteacher (Guillaume Canet) for being a pacifist. The film finds some contemporary relevance, particularly in its notions about the morally proper treatment of traitors and prisoners of war. Unfortunately, Barratier commits to the softest, squishiest approach to the story imaginable, playing up the cuteness of a catchphrase-spouting, beret-wearing, tow-headed tot and practically ordering the audience to stand up and cheer with a sentimental, John Williams-style musical score.
The film offers some lovely sights, from sweatered gamines on bicycles to harvest-ready valleys that roll endlessly to the horizons. War of the Buttons trivializes the moral and military themes it wants to take seriously, but at least it offers some pleasant scenery in the background.