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The Dog Who Stopped the War

(AKA La Guerre des tuques) 1984, Starring Cdric Jourde, Marie-Pierre A. D'Amour, Julien Elie, Minh Vu Duc, Maryse Cartwright, Luc Boucher, Natalie Gagnon. Directed by Andr Mlanon.

Guest Review by Rhett Miller

Of all the figures of Canuxploitation lore, few have equaled the output and lasting influence of Montreal distributor and producer Rock Demers. Notable for his early association with burgeoning Quebec cinema in the 1960s, Demers made his mark from the 1970s onward as the premier purveyor of quality children's fare this side of the border. He helped finance one of Canada's most bizarre film artifacts, The Christmas Martian--which was somewhat of a precursor to Spielberg's E.T.--and his later film, The Peanut Butter Solution, is nearly equally as surreal. With The Dog Who Stopped the War, however, Demers went beyond kitsch and created a holiday perennial that has stood the test of time as one of Canada's premier children's films.

1984's The Dog Who Stopped the War kicked off Demers' "Tales for All," a successful and enduring line of children's films. Although shot predominately in Quebec, the films have been dubbed into various languages, and have become television and elementary school mainstays throughout both English and French-speaking Canada. So far, the series has produced 17 family features, but as is usually the case, the best of the series is also the first.

During "show and tell" just before Christmas break, a young, ethereal boy named Luke (Cedric Jourde) shows off a war bugle, a present from his veteran grandfather. After the children are dismissed for the year, Luke rounds up the gang and proposes the group split in two and engage in a mock war a "war of toques," as the French of the film title states. The group outlines the parameters of the battle, and it becomes clear from the start that Luke rules with an authoritarian fist. This angers some of the other members, causing a second, more democratic party to be formed in opposition, led by Mark (Julien Elie) and his dog, Cleo. Mirroring Canada's cultural mosaic (and making the film more marketable for international audiences--Ed.), Mark's group extends both the boundaries of race and gender, as he recruits nerdy Asian kid, Francois (Minh Vu Duc), and the new girl in town, Sophie (Marie-Pierre A. D'Amour).

Luke and Mark agree to do battle over a massive snow castle, with each group attempting to gain control over the fortress. Of course, complications ensue, as Luke, in a bid to spy on the enemy, ends up falling in love with Sophie. The feeling is mutual, but the two are forced to keep their love silent. because of their allegiances. Meanwhile, Mark must deal with the ailing health of his dog. Skirmishes ensue in preparation for the big battle, and both groups demonstrate more than a few tricks. Mark's gang concocts snowballs filled with dye, staining everyone they hit, while Luke's troop create rushing strategies and armor protection that would make Achilles proud. Watching on is the group's pacifist, nature lover, and ultimate voice of reason, ironically dubbed Nick "The Loon" (Mathieu Savard). Nick declines to join either side of battle, and as the two groups stage their final battle, Nick, Luke, Mark and the rest of the children must deal with the tragic loss of life and innocence as they end the war once and for all.

The Dog Who Stopped the War is the perfect family film, ripe with life lessons and a moral against war. Staging a snowball war between children invites comparisons from Germany to Vietnam, but rather than dealing with specifics, the film blankets warfare and politics in general. War is presented in the film as a boyish quest for valor and a perversion of society's promotion of the need to succeed. It is wholly a human creation, contrasted poetically with the innate goodness of nature. Without the quest for glory, the dog and the various animals under Nick's watchful eye exist peacefully with the beautiful winter surroundings. The comparison between human and animal in The Dog Who Stopped the War is poetic and progressive, eschewing the common ideology that man is superior to the brutish animal and instead forcing us to reconsider our idea of civilization. It may sound heavy handed, but the metaphors in The Dog Who Stopped the War are universal.

More than just a generic commentary on war however, the film is also a glorious celebration of the wintry Northern Canadian lifestyle. Although there are no explicit references to Canada, the location and setting of the film could never be construed as anything but Canadian. Featuring sleds, skidoos, skis, hockey sticks and a display of snowsuits that would humble even The Brood, The Dog Who Stopped the War works as a postcard capsule of what it means to be Canadian. There is even a line of trademark anti-American sentiment echoed in the film, where little Francois curses at his walkie-talkie, "Never buy American radios!" While the remainder of the "Tales for All" series took place in inconspicuous locales, The Dog Who Stopped the War, like The Christmas Martian, is seeped from head to toe in Canadiana.

The theme song is also sung by a Canadian icon, the French-Canadian starlet Nathalie Simard. While she may not have the notoriety of Celine Dion (who also contributed the songs in The Peanut Butter Solution), her theme song to Dog ("Love is on our side") is 10 times more evocative than "My Heart Will Go On" and provides a wonderful final note to a wholly effective film. The theme song, as well as the entire synthesizer score, is orchestrated beautifully by Germain Gauthier, whose also worked on George Mihalka's Pinball Summer. It's a fantastic score, and perhaps one of the finest synth compositions to underpin any Canadian film. It gives the film a timeless magic, one that has made it endure for twenty years.

Granted, the ensemble acting--while much more competent than the embarrassing The Christmas Martian--is still not great. The love scene between Luke and Sophie, while emotionally effective, nonetheless comes off as awkwardly staged, and the dubbing prevents the film from registering on a completely emotional level. Likewise, the sound design comes off slightly hokey, with real gunfire sounds added to the snowball fights to hammer home the allegory. Finally, the characterization of the only ethnic in the film, little Francois, is incredibly clichéd, making him the four-eyed, gadget-wielding Asian kid that would be further played out in movies like The Goonies. Considering that most people in the film berate the little guy, it could have been handled much differently.

All things considered however, The Dog Who Stopped the War is a great little family film and one that Canada should be proud to proclaim as its own. Rock Demers' "Tales for All" series may have had its share of ups and downs, but there is no denying the effectiveness of this first venture. It is a film for all ages, and one that will hopefully be passed on from generation to generation as THE Canadian holiday classic.

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