An Iroquois homunculus is for life

Fake responsibility is there to balance fake irresponsibility in Ace Ventura 2, while, in The Indian in the Cupboard, a child learns the real meaning of responsibility. By Adam Mars-Jones; ACE VENTURA: WHEN NATURE CALLS Steve Oedekerk (PG) THE INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD Frank Oz (PG)

Jim Carrey's bizarre manifestation of the comic impulse is on show again in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. Carrey's rise follows on the ghastly mellowing of the two American performers who were funny on all cylinders (verbal, vocal, physical): Robin Williams and Steve Martin. These two have distanced themselves from pure comedy, preferring to be kings of people's hearts, and leaving room for a pretender who is prepared to keep the gags coming non-stop.

Carrey's energy level is up to the task, but what sort of performer is he? If he's an actor in Ace Ventura 2, it's safe to say that he's not an inter-actor. His routines are only bounced off the supporting cast. They're really addressed at an audience directly. Ace Ventura has no backstage. He's always "on", even if there's nobody there. His chief comic technique in dialogue is the insertion of exclamation marks between every word of a speech: "Nobody! Messes! With! The 'Do!" he says, when an opponent interferes with his hair.

Unlike his predecessors, Carrey has no interest in parody or even in mimicry. When the writer-director of the new film, Steve Oedekerk, sets up a take-off of a scene from Cliffhanger, with a dangling racoon replacing the dangling woman in the original, Carrey doesn't "do" Stallone. Later on, when Ventura pretends to see a gremlin eating the wing of the plane he's on, as in Twilight Zone: The Movie, Carrey doesn't even try to imitate John Lithgow's performance in that film. His comedy loves exaggeration, but has no place for observation.

Ventura specialises in manic disruption of any setting he's put in, but he has no point of view. He disrupts pomposity, but also simplicity. Visiting an African tribe, and being told they knew nothing of disease before the white man came, he reacts by sneezing theatrically over the nearest villager. Trusted with the mission of finding the missing totem animal of their culture, he maniacally desecrates their holy ground.

In theory, Ventura prefers animals to humans, and that is his moral basis. Certainly he can converse with elephants and gorillas, though he seems to speak no language but English. But he's only implicitly vegetarian, reserving his full antagonism for big game taxidermy and the wearing of fur stoles - hardly major activities in the suburban malls where films are shown. How does he stand on less flamboyant uses of animals, on oppression at the level of the burger and the shoe? Those boots of his don't look much like plastic.

Still, the fake responsibility about animals (which doesn't actually amount to a conservationist or ecological agenda) is only there to balance the fake irresponsibility about everything else. Is Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls worth 90 minutes of your time? No. Does it contain a good gag with a Slinky? Yes.

The Indian in the Cupboard is based on a well-known children's novel by Lynne Reid Banks, but has been thoroughly Americanised by Melissa Mathison, who, on the basis of her script for ET, must be accounted a major league wondermonger. There are even some similarities between the two stories: here, too, a child's life is transformed by the arrival of a magical being - a three-inch native American - who is both wise and vulnerable, older than the hero but still in need of protection.

The story is lovingly directed by Frank Oz, and well performed by actors young and old. The special effects are seamless. If the film doesn't have the poignancy of ET, perhaps that's because it's a little smug about the educational impact of fantasy. The hero, Omri (Hal Scardino) is anything but a deprived child: his family relationships are solidly functional. The arrival of Little Bear (Litefoot) in a cupboard which magically changes toys into living things doesn't fill any profound gap in his life. This tiny Iroquois could be a next-generation interactive CD-Rom, offering learning on a variety of levels.

First and foremost, Omri learns about native American culture in 1761, the year from which Little Bear has been magically snatched. He learns that the Iroquois don't say "How!" in greeting, or ride horses. Little Bear is specifically an Onondaga Iroquois, and the film goes to some trouble to get the details right. Little Bear isn't satisfied with the tepee that Omri gives him, even when the magic cupboard has changed its moulded plastic into stitched hide, and sets out to build himself a long house.

Omri also acquires some of Little Bear's values. When he says he has to go to school, Little Bear is enthusiastic ("Go! Learn the stories of your ancestors!"), and the Iroquois emphasis on storytelling encourages Omri to excel in English class. The use of his imagination doesn't estrange him from his parents - on the contrary, they see him as suddenly maturing. In need of food for Little Bear, he asks for some muesli (we see Little Bear nibbling at a grain boulder). He outgrows cartoons. He can sleep with the bedroom door closed.

Not all the changes are painless. Omri must learn too that in dreams begins responsibilities. And an Iroqouis homunculus isn't just for Christmas. Using the cupboard to animate another native American, intending only to take his bow and arrow, Omri triggers a fatal seizure in the newcomer. Little Bear takes for granted that they will bury his body with honour, while Omri only wants to send him back where he came from. Omri must live with Little Bear's disillusionment, his sorrowing realisation that this is a child and not the Great Spirit. "Don't your people die?"asks Little Bear, and Omri answers, "People die - we just don't see them."

There's yet more learning to be done, in the remorselessly educational progress of the story. Omri must learn that true love means letting go. In the stories about Little Bear that he writes for his English class, he mentions that he feels like a parent, always worrying about what Little Bear is doing while he's away. No small load for nine-year-old shoulders. Then when he lets his friend Patrick (Rishi Bhat) into the secret, and Patrick, in defiance of Omri's protests ("It's not a game! It's an enormous huge responsibility"), uses the cupboard to animate a cowboy, the problems begin in earnest. Should they try to force these natural enemies to get along? Should they look after them separately? If Little Bear needs a wife to be happy, should they use magic to abduct a squaw from her real life? And what if Boone the cowboy demands similar perks? Is Omri turning into a supernatural slave trader?

You couldn't find a pair of films more opposed in their outlook than Ace Ventura 2 and The Indian in the Cupboard. Everything imaginative in Ace Ventura 2 is synthetically anarchic, defiantly rebellious and infantile, while the fantasy of The Indian in the Cupboard continuously confronts issues of responsibility and limitation. By the end, the film has come to resemble The Tempest rather than The Incredible Shrinking Man, with Omri as a sort of kiddie Prospero renouncing his magical powers.

It's pretty clear that children who know what's good for them will choose The Indian in the Cupboard over Ace Ventura 2, just as they will get more from the Discovery Channel than from cartoons. But when did we start expecting children to know what's good for them? Come to that, when did we start knowing what's best for ourselves?

n 'Ace Ventura' goes on general release on Boxing Day; 'The Indian in the Cupboard' is on general release from Friday

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