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A simple bear necessity

Tigers, horses, seals, children and other animals: you know that it must be half-term again. One can understand why animals figure so large in fiction for children: both fauna inhabit a parallel universe in close proximity to, but separate from, the adult world. I'm not complaining: these days, when actors are more likely than animals to have a personal trainer (and frankly more likely to need it), and when the words put in their mouths are rarely worth hearing, it's a pleasure to spend a little quality time in the bestiary.

The Jungle Book, a new live-action version of Kipling's stories, boasts a small army of animal wranglers. The impressive results are on view in the near dialogue-free early scenes, which find the child Mowgli growing up under the benign tutelage of panthers, elephants and monkeys. Soon, however, he sprouts into Jason Scott Lee and discovers the grandeur and folly of the British Raj: John Cleese plays the tutor who initiates him into the absurdities of late 19th-century etiquette (teaspoons always to be stirred clockwise).

Lee's all-purpose exotic looks have landed him a range of tricky parts (the title role in The Bruce Lee Story, a Polynesian prince in Rapa Nui, an Eskimo in Map of the Human Heart) from which he has mostly emerged with honour. He's an ingenuous, likeable Mowgli. Stephen Sommers, the director, made last year's The Adventures of Huck Finn; like that movie, the new film is good-humoured and witty without (at least until the final reels, which sink into a sub-Indiana Jones romp) turning facetious.

Black Beauty also has the advantage of a classic source text and the dilemma of whether to tailor a century-old story to modern sensibilities. The Jungle Book performs some sleight of hand, miraculously translating Kipling's book into an anti-colonialist polemic. The latter plays it straight, going all-out for high melodrama.

The film is a Dickensian roller-coaster ride through the late Victorian caste system: Beauty begins life well, falls into bad hands (Eleanor Bron and the late Peter Cook as two cruel snobs), then good ones (David Thewlis as a poor-but-honest cabbie) before narrowly escaping the knacker's yard.

Caroline Thompson tells her story from the horse's point of view (his voice is by Alan Cummings), which makes for some striking effects - everyday sounds preternaturally magnified as they grate on the sick Beauty; a shot which lingers on the gentleness of a friendly hand. At times, though, it also slows down the movie: this is for viewers who like to watch lyrical footage, lots and lots of it, of horses cantering through meadows.

But at least the animals are treated with respect, which can't be said of Andre, by a good way the worst of the week's three family movies. It spins the most threadbare of storylines: animal enters dysfunctional family and sets everyone to rights (animals are the shrinks of poor America). Andre is a seal, impersonated in the film by a sea lion, although that's the least of the indignities he has to suffer: others include getting togged up in sunglasses, a beanie hat and Hawaiian shirt. His main, indeed his only party trick is blowing raspberries, a social accomplishment that makes him a national hero. The end titles run over a rap song which goes: "When you hear that funny sound / You know Andre is around." Basta.

The cinema documentary is an endangered species, ignored by the American Academy, rarely allowed out on the big screen. A few years back, Michael Moore's commercial hit Roger and Me was snubbed at the Oscars; this year it's the critically lauded Hoop Dreams (the Feature Film Company is bravely giving it a UK cinema outing next month). Osaka Story isn't nearly in the same class, but welcome anyway to this film diary about a young British- based director's trip home to his traditional Japanese family. The serenity of the opening scenes cracks to reveal a bigamous father, a profoundly unhappy mother and a son steeling himself to confess that he's gay. A little overstretched, but a warm and humane little film.

The best thing in Camilla, a rather dull road-movie about the friendship between an elderly musician and a much younger one (Bridget Fonda), is the late Jessica Tandy whose radiant beauty and commanding presence carries all before her. One would have to be churlish not to melt to the love scenes between her character and Hume Cronyn (her husband in real life) - a rare example of older characters allowed a sexual tenderness.

Holy Matrimony is a dud. Patricia Arquette reprises her True Romance role as a floozie on the run. In hiding in a strict Anabaptist community, she is married off, for reasons too silly and implausible to go into here, to a 12-year-old boy. The film dwells on her ritual humiliation at his hands (at root, this is another Macaulay Culkin-ite paean to brat power) and skirts unhappily around the perverse implications of the union.

The week's real booby-prize goes to Russell Meyer, breast fetishist and cult director extraordinaire, who is being honoured with a retrospective. It includes the sublimely titled Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1966) (see listings for reps, below), wherein three tough go-go dancers rip through the Californian desert, abducting a fluffy little teenager for purposes left unexplained (Meyer's film is surprisingly discreet on matters erotic).

Technically impressive - much more elegant than the drive-in trash it was meant to be lampooning - mockingly funny, it still looks suspiciously like a one-joke movie.

n All films open tomorrow

Sheila Johnston

other RELeASES

The Jungle Book (PG)

Dir: Stephen Sommers

Black Beauty (U)

Dir: Caroline Thompson

Andre (U)

Dir: George Miller

Osaka Story (no cert)

Dir: Toichi Nakata

Camilla (PG)

Dir: Deepa Mehta

Holy Matrimony (PG)

Dir: Leonard Nimoy

Faster Pussycat! (no cert)

Dir: Russell Meyer