FILM; Winning ways that save Babe's bacon

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Indy Lifestyle Online
IF YOU happen to be a certain sort of animal - the edible sort - December is the cruellest month, so perhaps there's a guilty, vegetarian agenda behind the fact that several of this week's movies feature charismatic livestock. And forget dumb - you can't turn round for gobbling frogs, magic dogs, wiseass mice and psycho ducks.

Protagonist of the week is the matchless Babe (U). Sensitive and so balanced one suspects expensive therapy, this heartbreaking porker escapes the abattoir and is won at the fair by tough (but tender) Farmer Hoggett. Raised by sheepdogs, Babe soon shows an ability for herding, facilitated largely by the fact that he's nice to sheep - no yapping or snapping. Babe just makes a polite request ("Would you mind going into that pen?") and they're happy to oblige. But it's not all fun, because Christmas is on its way. Lardy Mrs Hoggett can't choose between duck a l'orange and roast pot, and thus ensue droll capers involving a neurotic, Jack Lemmon- ish fowl keen to make itself indispensable as a rooster and Babe's ultimate triumph, moving right off any menu by winning the rosette at the local sheepdog trials. What makes the movie itself so winning is the wit of the screenplay (from a children's book by Dick King-Smith) and inspired direction and production from the team of Chris Noonan and George Mad Max Miller. A cast of more than 500 highly trained animals (picture 48 piglets on call), discreet use of animatronics and Jim Henson's puppeteers result in Rada-calibre performances from animals that really seem to speak (and watch out for a callous trio of funky mouseketeers). In this eccentric tribute to individuality and the downfall of bigotry, Babe never hams, communicating via sensual nostrils and a voice whose Yankee squeak only slightly irritates. I defy anyone to watch him warble "Jingle Bells" and look at a chipolata again.

So to The Swan Princess (U), whose heroine bears an uncanny resemblance to Claudia Schiffer. This version of the Swan Lake fable issues from the studios of Disney film-maker Richard Rich, who spurns computer graphics for traditional techniques. The result is jewel-bright scenery but, oddly, faces flat and pallid as pancakes. Heirs to vast kingdoms, Princess Odette and the devilishly named Prince Derek are thrown together in the hope that they'll unite, but Derek spoils his chances by telling right- on Odette he loves her for her beauty. Stalking off, she meets avaricious Rothbart, a cross between Darth Vader and a mop with a red rinse who, on failing to win her hand, transforms Odette into a swan for the hours from dawn to dusk, a spell which can be broken only by a vow of undying love. Humorous interlude comes in the shape of a lakeside menagerie, but though Jean-Bob the frog is voiced by John Cleese and Speed the turtle by laid-back comic Steven Wright, the script is lacklustre and the jokes mysteriously invisible. Only Jack Palance, as Rothbart, seems to be having fun. Still, tinies should enjoy the songs.

Three Wishes (PG) is Patrick Swayze's bid to enter the world of fairytale. He is shamanistic drifter Jack McCloud who, along with his familiar, magical mutt Mary Jane, encounters pretty war-widow Jeanne (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) when she runs him over. Guilt-stricken, she invites him to stay until his leg heals - but this is Fifties America and, with only her two small sons as chaperone, she's courting scandal. Soon, Zen master Jack is raising eyebrows sunbathing au naturel and coaching son Tom's Little League team to stardom by instigating pre-match meditation. Mary Jane, meanwhile, is helping five-year-old Gunny overcome his fear of practically everything by getting him to confront computer-animated monsters. As with Babe, the moral is about individuality and self-realisation - except there's no discernible character development, and victory over ill-fortune is wrought arbitrarily, in a schmaltzy, cop- out ending where magic does the trick. This is a pity, since director Martha Coolidge's Capraesque tale begins promisingly and the performances, particularly from Mastrantonio, are restrained and plausible. Two-thirds of the way in, though, you're wondering what the hallucinogenic effects surrounding cancer-stricken Gunny signify - is he on morphine? - and why Tom is in deepening denial over his dad. Confusing New Age therapy with magic never works, even in LA.

For those who don't get along with the relatives, this season's anti- family film is The Tie That Binds (18). It's a directorial debut for screenwriter Wesley Strick, whose Cape Fear gave us a pubescent Juliette Lewis menaced by Robert De Niro. This time we have Janie (played with authentic-looking terror by Julia Devin), luckless child of Mickey and Mallory wannabees John and Leann Dashwood. When they lose her to the authorities during a heist, Janie is adopted by the wholesome Cliftons and, by 10 minutes in, it's clear the film is a confrontational gore-fest waiting to happen. As the epitome of well-adjusted coupledom, Vincent Spano and Moira Kelly are painstakingly cute, while Daryl Hannah inflects perverted motherhood, with a disquieting vacancy. Trudging through sets awash in the crassest symbolism - screaming winds, billowing black clouds, rooms that turn red - Keith Carradine has no choice but to play John Dashwood off the scale, hair awry and eyes rolling. Simplistic and exploitative, this is panto-style melodrama without the psychological depth. "Daddy can explain," leers Carradine, looming blood-boltered over his child in the woods. Oh no, he can't.

No one can explain the Prague-set espionage thriller The Shooter (18), either. Not director Ted Kotcheff, responsible for pairing Stallone and Dolph Lundgren in First Blood, who flaps, "The Shooter is somewhat film noir." And not the protagonists who, when at a loss, start shooting. Blond hunk Lundgren plays US Marshall Michael Dane, sent to the Czech Republic on the eve of the Cuban/American summit, where he pairs up with his CIA operative stepdad. His aim is to locate the killer of the Cuban Ambassador in New York before she can strike again. Fortunately for Dolph this turns out to be Maruschka Detmers, who can't pick a decent role to save her life but is far from unattractive. As soignee Simone Rosset, she is required to dance lasciviously in a gay bar for no reason other than shock value ("Is she a lesbian?" cries Dolph); to be a coyly suggestive wine connoisseur ("Would you like to see my cellar? It's impressive ..."); and to crawl on the roof of a moving train with her behind in the air. Though handy with an Uzi, Dolph is no match for this sort of thing. He falls for Simone, discovers the bad guy is not her, but someone he'd never suspected (really?) and proceeds on a series of mindless car chases through the picturesque capital, firing double-fisted at every opportunity and generally drawing attention. As an undercover agent, Dolph makes a fine Belisha beacon.

From people who behave like animals to people who become them, and Jean Cocteau's majestic La Belle et la Bete (PG), made in 1946. Though there are a number of ways to read the film's subtexts, the greatest pleasure is simply to enjoy Cocteau's baroque vision and the notion that love can transform. The singing teapots and galumphing hero of Disney's version pale beside the ghostly living fireplace, the Thing-like hand that waits at table, Josette Day's slow-motion glide through the castle and the Beast's disgust at his own smoking paws. Not too scary for children, this remains a luminous joy.

Cinema details: Review, page 84.

Quentin Curtis returns next week.

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