FILM / Croak and dagger adventures

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The Independent Culture
Freddie as F R 0 7 (U) Jon Acevski (UK); The News Boys (PG) Kenny Ortega (US); Waiting (15) Jackie McKimmie (Aus); Without You I'm Nothing (no cert) John Boskovitch (US)

It is a close call as to which of this week's children's films has the more mind-boggling plot premise: The News Boys, a Disney musical about unionism and sweated child labour, or Freddie as F R 0 7, about a giant frog who talks just like Maurice Chevalier and is a crack secret agent (oddly, he never seems to have any trouble blending into the scenery). In this British animated feature, crazed megalomaniac masterminds are abducting our best-loved historical monuments: their thinking is that the bulldog spirit will evaporate along with the ancient stones. 'They represent history, culture, the backbone of Britain,' they hiss. 'Your people will become dull, sleepy. Finally your whole country will be at a standstill.' One wonders whether it would make much difference - with our economy, who needs villains?

As a little prince Freddie was given his frogly form by an evil aunt (sadly he never changes back, even though, being a Frenchman, he gets to kiss the heroine, several times); he grows up and - cut, rather abruptly, to the present day - becomes the jewel of the French secret service. And thus, the Brits all being completely incompetent and 007 being otherwise engaged in Hollywood, a foreigner is drafted in to save the day.

Entitling the film Freddie as F R 0 7 assumes we already know the character as someone else. It's intended, audaciously, to launch a series based around the fellow and the first sequel, Freddie Goes to Washington, is already in production. This effort is a slightly unhappy mix of fairy-tale and modern spy caper, although it's nice that, unlike Don Bluth's films such as Rock-A-Doodle, which are made in Ireland but look and sound pure Burbank, Freddie has homespun themes, settings and accents (supplied by Ben Kingsley, Michael Hordern, Jenny Agutter, Nigel Hawthorne, Billie Whitelaw and Jonathan Pryce).

But the picture evokes above all one vanished national monument: the British film industry and its flagship, the Bond series, which will shortly celebrate its 30th anniversary but which, as 007's box-office clout dwindles, has faded from the scene. Freddie is a cut- price superhero - an animated espionage extravangaza costs, after all, rather less than the real thing. It's sad that this valiant but rather puny effort is all our cinema can run to these days.

The News Boys is a kind of campy cross between Oliver] and Annie: a piece of preposterous agit-prop from a studio never renowned for its harmonious labour relations (Variety reports a joke doing the rounds there: 'If you come in late on Saturday, don't bother coming in on Sunday'). It's the story of the 1899 New York newsboys' strike against the wicked press barons William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer (the latter played, in an outrageously twitchy cameo, by Robert Duvall). Larky ragged-trousered urchins trill, cavort and cartwheel through the Disney backlot; the songs are by Alan Menken, half of the Oscar-winning team behind Beauty and the Beast; Kenny Ortega, ex-Dirty Dancing, choreographs and directs.

Alas, this kind of film musical looks frightfully old-fashioned. Unpopular with younger audiences, prohibitively expensive to produce, the genre has fallen into desuetude in Hollywood; outside the special exemptions of the cartoon and the 'talent-contest' plotline we're no longer primed to accept characters suddenly bursting into song. This dinosaur proves they don't make 'em like this any more, thank goodness.

Waiting, a likeable Australian comedy, is one of those Big Chill- type scenarios about the reunion of a group of long-lost friends. The (genuinely) nine-months' pregnant Nonie Hazlehurst is carrying a child on behalf of her infertile friend; Therese, a professional feminist who runs a rape crisis centre, is making a documentary lambasting the male medical establishment and induced births. Also present are a glamorous career woman, and a motley assortment of menfolk, kids and pets. Gloom at the prospect of 95 minutes of heartwarming female bonding was speedily dispelled: the writer-director Jackie McKimmie avoids glib simplicities and displays a droll sense of comedy and an acute eye for human absurdity.

But the really sharp end of the female experience is provided by the American comedienne Sandra Bernhard in Without You I'm Nothing, a film adaptation of her first one-woman show. It is a pungent mix of anecdotes, songs and, at one point, a bump 'n' grind number executed in a stars-and- stripes G-string. All these are performed, not exactly by Bernhard herself, but by her many alter egos: she comes on as, by turns, a 'sexpert', a voguish Warhol groupie from the New York art world, various pop celebrities, thinly disguised, and an airheaded San Francisco executive secretary.

Inevitably the film loses the element of threat you had in Bernhard's aggressive live performance but it compensates by becoming a send-up of the self-congratulatory in-concert movie. There are constant cut-aways to the on-screen public - not, as per the cliche, listening raptly but yawning or ordering another cocktail or making for the door. Her first number, a version of Nina Simone's 'Four Women' performed in full African regalia, goes down like a lead balloon with her all-black listeners, as does the chaser, a medley of Israeli folk songs. Like her friend and (maybe) lover Madonna, Bernhard appears as a fascinating mix of bravado and vulnerability - and a consummate practitioner of that rarest form of American humour: irony.