Movie Review: French animated “SamSam” loses something in translation

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What qualities makes a children’s book or cartoon series translate across languages and cultures?

Why would anime like “Gigantor” and “Speed Racer,” books and animated TV and films about “Babar” and “The Smurfs” become universal, while “Asterix” and “Arthur and the Minimoys” fail outside of their homelands?

Charm and that Hippocratic Oath of children’s entertainment, “first, do no harm” helps. But if it’s meant to be humorous, you’ve got to have sight gags understandable the world over, dialogue that’s funny in any language, weird voices and characters that tickle.

Whatever the allure of the long-running French “SamSam” books by Serge Bloch, which have inspired a successful TV series, the movie “SamSam” shows this franchise needs some script doctoring before it’ll connect on the continent where Disney and Pixar set the standard.

It’s a lot more “Arthur and the Minimoys” than “The Smurfs,” although for the life of me I can’t figure out why kids embraced the latter, either. The film skews quite young, with primary colors and playfully drawn characters. But there’s not a funny line in it, and barely a sight gag worth mentioning.

“SamSam” is sort of an “Incredibles” and “Monsters Inc” mashup about a little boy from the Planet Sam, a space traveling kid from a race of superheroes.

SamSam (voiced by Tucker Chandler) can fly his retro Jetsons saucer, confide in his Sam. BuTeddy (Connor Elias Andrade). But he’s inept at sports and impatient to start growing up He hasn’t discovered his “powers” yet.

An only child, his parents tell him “Your powers are in you” and that he’ll find them himself. But he feels left out, unheroic, despite his cape, mask, flying saucer and all.

The planet Marchel (or Martial), ruled by King Marthy the First (Dino Andrade) is a mirthless, childless military state, because the self-described dictator in charge can’t stand kiddie mirth.

“Smiling makes you ugly, and laughter gives you headaches.”

He’s projecting, of course, as dictators who. He’s a hypocrite, as dictators are, because he has a little girl while none of his minions are allowed to have children. Mega (Lily SanFelipppo) is being groomed to be an opera singer by her mother, like generations of her mother’s family before her. Dad wants her to go to dictator school.

But when both she and SamSam venture into space to poke around the forbidden zone (minefield) between their planets, she notes that there are other kids playing, that even if they have powers and SamSam doesn’t, the other kids consider him their friend.

“Friend?” This is one of many concepts Mega would like to explore, which is why she connects with SamSam and enrolls in his school, when she’s told Dad she’s at Dictator School and Mom (Michelle Deco) she’s attending School of Song.

Complications ensue, a lie is exposed, friendship is tested. You know the kiddie film drill.

SamSam is cute and open-hearted, and I suppose small children will be able to identify with him. Mega is an empowered little girl, even if she fibs to allow herself to experience friendship, smiling and laughter.

But there’s nothing here that would provoke either of those reactions. The villain is oddly drawn, but flatly scripted and humorlessly voice-acted. There’s barely even an attempt at a funny voice in the cast, and having nothing funny for them to say doesn’t help.

The design has a whimsy, and there’s a hint of Smurf-speak in the way everything on Planet Sam has Sam in its name — SamDad, SamMom, SamTeddy, etc.

But “SamSam” plays like what it is, a quick and pretty but ill-thought-through attempt to cash in on a popular French kids’ cartoon.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: unrated, child-friendly

Cast: The voices of Tucker Chandler, Lily Sanfelippo, Dino Andrade, Connor Elias Andrade, Michelle Deco, Caitlin Prennance

Credits: Tanguy de Kermel script by Valérie Magis and Jean Regnaud, based on the Serge Bloch illustrated children’s books.  A Canal+ production/Blue Fox Entertainment release.

Running time: 1:18

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