To judge by StrictlyBallroom and Muriel's Wedding, the favourite fairy-tale of the antipodes at the moment has to be the Ugly Duckling. Australia is now well past its phase of the "cultural cringe" (the assumption that everything worthwhile has to come from overseas), but with its first generation of internationally acclaimed directors - Weir, Schepisi, Beresford - now thoroughly Americanised, there is doubt whether Australian cinema can still turn out swans. Writer-director P J Hogan's solution is to take a domestic subject - the hell of family life in a small town in New South Wales - and to caricature his chosen setting, reserving his affection and his sentiment for the central character Muriel (Toni Collette), a homely dreamer with no particulartalent, unless loving Abba songs is a talent.
Muriel has four grubbing and inert younger siblings, a wheeler-dealer father who keeps telling them all they are useless, and a permanently dazed mother, mesmerised for instance by the rotation of the cup in the microwave when she "makes" "tea" .
Muriel's friends are bimbo-bitches from hell, Neighbours characters gone rancid, who sneer at her for having bad taste different from their own. It's true that Muriel could write a book about nasty earrings, but still it takes nerve to say "you've got no dignity, Muriel", as one hell-bimbo does, while dressed as a tropical aquarium herself.
Toni Collette makes a good job of Muriel, starting off in a sort of solemn dream-world not so different from her mother's, blossoming when she breaks out on her own. Installed in Sydney, she tells her sparky room-mate Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths) that she doesn't listen to Abba songs any more because now her life is as good as an Abba song. Not just any Abba song. Her life is as good as "Dancing Queen".
The acting in minor roles is equally accomplished. The assistant in a brideswear shop describes a dress ("silk chantelle. Imported") in tones so reverent they sound like grief. It's as if Muriel wanted to view a body and not a frock.
The film moves to a couple of full-blooded comic climaxes in its first hour: a mimed version of "Waterloo" complete with the trademark Abba two- shoots (foreground face inprofile, background face full-on) and a slapstick sequence of Muriel more or less losing her virginity - she's giggling and snorting so hard that we can't tell where hysterics end and arousal begins. Then Muriel's Wedding goes for that old Terms of Endearment laughter- to-tears U-turn, not once but twice.
The film would be more convincing in poking fun at the world of soap opera if it didn't itself reach for the instant dramas of illness and breakdown, cancer and kleptomania in such a soapy way: "Oh God, I'm going to go bald and have to eat macrobiotic food" is a typically uneasy line, the dialogue adjusting rather too slowly to the change of tone.
The second time Muriel's Wedding gets serious is more effective, because the rest of the film finally catches up with Jeanie Drynan, who has all along been giving a performance as Muriel's mother that could come from a more ambitious film. Endlessly put upon and treated as a domestic zombie, her shiny, expressionless face nevertheless showing a sort of extinct hope, Drynan doesn't give in too much to the comedy of lines like "A blank cheque? How much for?" or - spoken to a daughter returning from a holiday she has paid for with stolen family money - "Did you bring me a present?" If everything about Muriel's Wedding was as good as this performance, it would be more than a mildly entertaining piece of work, a film that can't quite make up its mind whether it's a satire on Australian family life or a plea for the self-esteem of ugly ducklings everywhere.
Playing with Muriel's Wedding at a few London cinemas is Bob's Birthday, winner of this year's Oscar for Best Animated Short. It's well worth seeking out if you can't wait till June, when the ICA will screen a programme of British animation that also includes two other nominated films (Triangle and The Big Story). Bob's Birthday, written and directed by Alison Snowden and David Fine, is sharp and funny about mid-life, about social embarrassment, about potted plants, about dental floss and about the difficulty of blowing up balloons for a party without getting a headache.
The recent successes of our animated shorts at the Oscars and elsewhere are due to an emphasis on the ordinary, the untransformed - paradoxical in a medium where there are no limits to what can be shown. The result is a distinctive wryness and sense of limitation. Only in a British film would a man and his dog go to the moon for a cheese snack and be home before dark (Nick Park's A Grand Day Out). Briitsh animation has the modest adventureness of Philip Larkin wanting to go to China but only if he could come back the same day.