Formulaic from its present-day framing device to its feel-good wrap-up, Christophe Barratier's Les choristes (a.k.a. The Chorus) takes an "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" tack. This boutique postcard of a movie fits Miramax like a glove, and will nestle comfortably into the upscale art house cinemas. If you go into The Chorus knowing this and not expecting any more, it's a pleasant enough experience.
Two old men—one a symphony conductor—sit down to recall a pivotal school year from their errant childhood, spent at the Fond de l'Etang ("the bottom of the pond"): a boarding school with an unofficial policy of giving up on its "difficult" children. In 1949, new supervisor Clément Mathieu (Gérard Jugnot) arrives at the school. A frustrated composer (yes, like Mr. Holland, he has opuses secreted in his portfolio), Mathieu narrates laboriously from the pages of his diary: "I swore I'd never take up music again. Never say never. Something's always worth trying."
The owlish headmaster (François Berléand) makes a faintly comic figure in his doomed pessimism, though the real-life reputation of such schools is no laughing matter. Barratier consciously softens the rough treatment of the boys, and Mathieu is the bumbling white knight who arrives to save the day with encouragement and compassion. The headmaster's flunkies all parrot his pet phrase. "Action-reaction," cautions the outgoing supervisor. "That's all they understand." Mathieu makes the children understand that they have music in them, though how he generates their interest remains vague, and how he cultivates their talent is glossed over in montage.
The Chorus, freely adapted from the 1947 film La cage aux Rossignols (A Cage of Nightingales), succeeds on two inestimable strengths. The first is veteran film talent Jugnot, whose open-book performance charms with adroit, subtle physical comedy. The second is the music, a sure-fire tool of crowd-pleasing, old-world, international drama. As sung by Les Petits Chanteurs de Saint-Marc, the classically flavored art songs are indeed lovely, and the knockout voice of Jean-Baptiste Maunier (who plays angel-faced trouble maker Pierre Morhange and sings every note) has made him a bona-fide celebrity in France. In fact, Les choristes is a full-fledged phenomenon in France, and the country's official entry for the 2005 Academy Awards.
There's nothing objectionable about The Chorus. It's sweet-natured and makes for a conspicuously charming kids' film. But adults who slobber over The Chorus are kidding themselves if they think it's sophisticated, realistic, or original. Its paces follow tracks well-trodden by Hollywood for decades; as such, the film's 95 minutes seem longer. Barratier mixes idealism and sympathetic wistfulness into a pablum that will send audiences out on a high, ready to plan trips to the school location (the already-popular medieval-castle tourist attraction Chateau Ravel), buy the soundtrack, and bring their friends back to see the film again. There's an action-reaction for you, but I'm not sure it's art.