FILM / And when did you last sue your father?

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Ten years ago, when Alan Zweibel wrote his novel North, he didn't use the analogy of divorce, although his story was about a pre-adolescent who chooses to sever ties with his parents. His inspiration was the prevalence of 'free agency' in baseball at the time: his hero, also called North, puts himself on the equivalent of a transfer list in football. His services as a model child can be secured by the adoptive parents who are best able to meet his needs. His biological parents aren't bad people, they just take him for granted.

Since then, children have gone to court and secured the separations from their parents which are routinely described as 'divorces'. You could say that Zweibel's fable has proved prophetic, that his comic fantasy has been underwritten by an emerging children's rights movement. Children are coming out of the nursery closet, refusing to be confined in the kindergarten ghetto. But the book, and how much more so the film Rob Reiner has made from it, is about a slightly different sort of divorce, one that it both exploits and seeks to undo: the divorce of an adult audience from a childish one. Our current sense seems to be that maturity and immaturity have nothing in common, and can be brought together only for an artificial instant.

Adults who see Disney's Jungle Book are not invited to experience anything especially different from what is given to children. They may notice that the climactic duet between King Louie and Baloo on 'I Wanna Be Like You' draws on the tradition of jazz vocalising known as 'scat' singing, but they are offered an unspecialised joy. Disney's Aladdin, by contrast, is a highly sophisticated piece of leisure technology that targets different constituencies simultaneously, such as: players of video games who demand demonstrations of the state-of-the-art special effects within the extended special effect that is animation; fans of Robin Williams and cherishers of their inner child, who wish to hear the hero describe his situation in reassuring psychobabble.

This approach is currently the norm. The film of The Flintstones, for instance, is a kind of entertainment sausage constructed so that even the thinnest slice will contain something to appeal to a 10-year- old and a 40-year-old.

The last film that tried to appeal to children and adults in an undivided way was probably Barry Levinson's much disliked Toys. The last film that did it successfully was ET. You might start off watching that film with thoughts of the special emotional needs of children from broken homes, but if you ended up with those thoughts then the film had simply not worked for you, since everything in it sought to enforce the primacy of wonder. The Spielberg who made Jurassic Park was also trying for cross-generational appeal, but in the more decadent, atomised way. The fault of that film was not that it was too frightening but that it alternately provoked and neutralised fear (as opposed to building and discharging fear, as a good horror film can): it sat next to you in the dark and shouted 'boo]', while also holding your hand to reassure you.

North, though a perfectly enjoyable film, employs another variation of bad faith. The plot flatters children by seeming to take their feelings of alienation seriously, while virtually every sequence depends for its humour on childish mis-imaginings of the real world. North (Elijah Wood) auditions a number of potential parents in a series of caricaturely different settings. In Texas, everything has swans on it and even the dinner plates bear the brand of the ranch. In Hawaii, there are five vowels but only seven consonants, so academic achievement is easier (you can't get a B, C or D grade).

In the film's opening sequence, we are shown a leisurely montage of North's bedroom, amply stocked with toys, all mysteriously in motion. The artifical flakes swirl dreamily in his collection of souvenir snowstorms, naive plastic renderings of faraway places that will structure the fantasy to come.

The idea is perhaps derived from the splendid 1980s fantasy Labyrinth, where the heroine's adventures are likewise suggested by the decor of her bedroom, but North pushes it much further into cuteness. When North visits Alaska, we are shown an igloo with its own mailbox, also in the shape of an igloo.

Your pleasure in the film will depend on how much false navety you personally can take. Elijah Wood is very good, lovable without pimping for it, more than a match for Macaulay Culkin (his co-star in The Good Son, a film we in this country have not yet been trusted to see). But he's only human: he can't do much with the disingenuous pang of the moment when we learn that this popular, successful child's 'special place', where he goes when he's sad, isn't a treehouse or a bridge in the park, though the camera shows us both, but the soft furnishing section of a shopping mall, where he can pretend his parents will be picking him up at any moment.

Some sequences of North are cued not by a child's toy snowstorm but by their adult equivalent, blockbuster movie. So there is a brief Amish sequence, with Kelly McGillis and Alexander Godunov doing a lightning reprise of their roles in Witness. There is also a china moment borrowed from The Last Emperor. Audiences with long memories may be reminded by Mathew McCurley as the tough-talking, red-braces-wearing editor of the school magazine and subsequent theorist of kids' liberation, of Bugsy Malone, but that is less a film reference than a reminder that the cinema of ersatz childhood is not new.

North's parents are played by actors associated with the TV series Seinfeld, Jason Alexander and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Louis-Dreyfus prepared for her character's comedy coma by 'hanging out' in the morgue at Bellevue Hospital (we'll be hearing next that Robin Williams prepared for the Genie in Aladdin by living in a lamp for a thousand years), not that you can tell.

Rounding out the cast is Bruce Willis as the narrator and chorus- figure, who turns up in each of North's fantasy locations. In a disturbing development, this actor is losing his once huge ability to


It is Willis who delivers the film's most characteristic piece of dialogue: 'Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home . . .' he says, then waits a beat before adding the comment that doesn't disown the cliche but gives it a sickly adult varnish: ' . . . with the possible exception of Vegas when Sinatra's in town.'

(Photograph omitted)