War Of The Buttons

on September 29, 1995 by Shlomo Schwartzberg
   Screened at Toronto. On the plus side, this children's movie has a winning, mostly neophyte cast, a picturesque Irish setting and American studio distribution. But despite impres-sive credentials, including that of producer David Puttnam, "War of the Buttons" falls shy of its lofty goals a shortcoming all the more noticeable with its arrival after such winning fare as "Babe" and "A Little Princess."
   A cross between "Lord of the Flies" and a Hatfields vs. McCoys tale, "War of the Buttons" is set in an Irish town in which two groups of lads are engaged in a murky, long-running feud. Although there don't seem to be many differences between the sides, they have created a dividing line and constantly toss insults across to each other, which often as not lead to violence -- or what this movie considers to be violence.
   For a film about anger and hatred, "War of the Buttons" is surprisingly benign. Unrealistically, the boys never exchange punches, prefering twigs and sticks that inflict little damage. Strangely, the script by Colin Welland allows their parents to ignore the boys' activities, resulting in a movie that bathes the children in such a rosy, almost innocent light that it begs the question of why they're fighting in the first place.
   The movie has a message to impart, of course -- the usual one that disputes can be settled and old enemies can become new friends. That's fine enough, but "War of the Buttons" -- a remake of the French film "La guerre des boutons" -- is never very engaging. Transposing the setting to Ireland serves only to emphasize the film's unbelievability, because the seemingly unavoidable specter of that land's Catholic/Protestant hatreds is never addressed. The young actors are talented, but in this case they shine amid dull material.    Starring Colm Meaney, Johnny Murphy and Liam Cunningham. Directed by John Roberts. Written by Colin Welland. Produced by David Puttnam. A Warner Bros. release. Drama. Rated PG for mischievous conflict, some mild language and bare bottoms. Running time: 94 min.
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