Let Hollywood plunge headlong into the CGI animals who hear the “Call of the Wild,” the easier to manage computer-generated bears and wolves, Persians and Chihuahuas they’re shoving into more and more films.
In France, they still do things the old-fashioned and proper way. They know there is no substitute for actors interacting with and audiences marveling at a living, breathing, not-wholly-predictable animal.
“Vicky and her Mystery” is a “true story” of a child and her adopted wolf, talkier and more melodramatically conventional than the minor classic “The Fox & the Child (2007),” but similar in setting, themes and living, breathing canis vulpes or canis lupus.
A doctor (Vincent Albez) has taken a leave of absence and retreated to his family’s country modest country house in the foothills of the Alps. He lost his wife, and his little girl, Victoria (Shanna Keil) hasn’t spoken since her mother died. Maybe a little Alpine sojourn will help her recover.
But we’ve seen local shepherds taking to the nearby forests where father and daughter hike. The shepherds are zealous about wolf “culling,” killing the last predators in the region so keep the wolves from attacking their sheep. Plainly, Dad getting lost isn’t their biggest concern.
A friendly farmer (the great Tchéky Karyo) takes them in and offers to take them home after one misdirected hike. But Victoria spies what she takes to be just a cute puppy, orphaned and curled up in a basket in the farmer’s barn. Her silence comes to an end in an instant.
“Does he have a name?”
“Mystère,” the old man says. Take him home, he suggests. Old Men of the Mountains know exactly what little kids need.
And so, in the film’s most far-fetched plot point, Vicky tucks the pup into her backpack, sneaks him home and lets him stay in her room. All of this is done with father Stephane somehow being none the wiser.
He doesn’t discover her “dog…maybe a Husky?” until after he’s marveled at the fact that she’s speaking again and coming out of her grief and shock.
As we’ve not seen the 8 year-old feed or walk little Mystère, we wonder how keeping this rambunctious “secret” is remotely possible.
But that’s not as important as what the wolf inside their door represents. The shepherds are downright militant in their demands to exterminate the wolves, to change policy so that what they do is legal. A secret wolf pet isn’t something these guys are going to stomach.
And as cute as little Mystère is, snuggling with Vicky, shredding her shoes and howling, her keeping him is sure to run her afoul of the single mom (Marie Gillain) who has been flirting with Dad at school pick-ups and drop-offs. She’s a veterinarian, and has ties to local wildlife management.
Mystère should be wild, living in a preserve. It’s just that Vicky and her father, who has seen what the wolf means to his daughter, aren’t letting that happen.
“Mystère,” as the film is titled in France, has a simple plot, gorgeous scenery and adorable trained wolves of various ages depicting the titular pup as he grows up, faces his wildness and tries to reconcile this with his love for a little girl.
I cannot overstate how that living, breathing animal grabs the camera and holds our attention in scene after scene. Like his co-stars in the film, I was transfixed by everything he did, the intelligence in the eyes that no computer-generated canine has ever been able to mimic.
As someone who regularly bashes Hollywood for taking the digital shortcut, from Big Red Dogs to simple housecats, I naturally think it’s great when somebody takes the trouble to make a movie that backs up my point.
If you’re telling a story about a child and her dog, wolf or what have you, and you don’t have the patience to cast, train and work with a trained animal, don’t bother.
“Vicky and her Mystery” may just be a children’s genre picture, with a couple of disturbing, heart-tearing moments to challenge its youngest viewers. But thanks to a winning cast and a darned good
dog wolf, it’s irresistible. It works.
Rating: TV-PG, some violence
Cast: Vincent Albez, Shanna Keil, Marie Gillain, Eric Elmosnino and Tchéky Karyo.
Credits: Directed by Denis Imbert, scripted by Deni Imbert, Mathieu Oullion, Rémi Sappe and Stéphanie Vasseur. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:23