What is a modern moviegoing child to make of “The Zigzag Kid,” a 2012 Dutch family adventure opening today at the West Newton? The characters are live-action and recognizably human and the locations are on this planet. As far as I can tell there are no digital effects whatsoever. A tie-in soundtrack is definitely not available and the only musical number is sung by an aging chanteuse played by Isabella Rossellini. How do you sell this thing to your kids? Being delightfully inventive will have to do.
Based on a book by Israeli writer David Grossman (and coming to the screen in a Babel of English, Dutch, and French, the latter two subtitled), “Zigzag Kid” feels a little like the recent “Hugo” filtered through the old “Emil and the Detectives.” Nono (Thomas Simon) is the 13-year-old son of one of Europe’s greatest police detectives (Fedja Van Huet); but while the old man has taught him the secrets of criminology, Nono’s still a kid and a mischievous one. Beneath that mischief is a sense of sadness at the hole left by his late mother (Camille de Pazzis), who died when he was a year old.
When his father packs him off on a train ride to Uncle Schmuel to straighten Nono out, the journey is interrupted by what appears to be a follow-the-clues adventure engineered by Dad, or maybe by his long-suffering secretary/girlfriend Gaby (Jessica Zeylmaker), or maybe by a sprightly old man named Felix, who may or may not be a criminal mastermind . . . It’s complicated. Before Nono can learn who he is, he has to figure out who everyone else is, starting with the mother he never knew.
How Rossellini gets worked in here, playing a world-weary cabaret singer named Lola Capirola, is worth the bother of finding out. “The Zigzag Kid” takes place in the ’60s and has the vibe of a fast-paced Euro-classic from that era: It tootles along like a vintage Citroen. Simon is immensely appealing in the lead — smart, resourceful, weighed down with a few more cares than a kid his age should have. There are couples who meet cute in vats of chocolate, breathless escapes along construction cranes, but all the adventure is tethered to Nono’s emotional journey, one that doesn’t feel cooked up by a screenwriting software program.
Kids old enough to read (or be read to) and to keep up with the narrative switchbacks and occasional moments of despair are likely to be enraptured. So will any parents in the mood for an old-school tale well told. If your children come out still squawking to see the latest CGI family franchise sequel — well, it’s never too late to disown them.