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Friday, April 3, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Newsies,' `Ferngully' Tops For Kids

Spring vacation started for some kids earlier this week. For others it's just getting under way.

The major studios, as usual, are obliging with a collection of G-rated and PG-rated movies aimed at children and families. While the list includes no new Disney cartoons or Ninja Turtles adventures, the lineup is satisfyingly varied.

The really good stuff - "FernGully," "My Neighbor Tortoro," "Newsies" - won't be arriving officially until next weekend, although "Newsies" and "Ferngully" will have open-to-the-public sneak previews tomorrow and Sunday, respectively. In the meantime, you may not be able to get out of a mall with your children without being lured to one of the following:

XX "BEETHOVEN" - As B-movie canine epics go, this one isn't as dull as "Benji" or as crass as "Bingo," but perhaps only a pet-starved child could love it (it may deserve XXX for the 12-and-under set). The absurdly contrived plot involves an evil veterinarian (Dean Jones) who likes to experiment with animals and has a special yen for a boisterous, drooling, mess-making St. Bernard who is christened Beethoven. The 185-pound creature is reluctantly owned by family man Charles Grodin, who would gladly hand over the dog if his wife and children would even think of parting with him. Beethoven, you see, is the kind of essential family pet who saves children from drowning, gives confidence to nerdy boys harassed by school bullies, recruits willing beaus for

self-conscious adolescent girls, and would probably discover a cure for cancer if given a sequel. Providing welcome comic relief are a childless, petless yuppie couple named Brad and Brie ("We have a career"), played to a petulant fare-thee-well by David Duchovny and Patricia Heaton. "Beethoven" opens today at the Crossroads, Factoria, Grand Cinemas Alderwood, Oak Tree, Parkway Plaza, Seatac Mall and Uptown Cinemas."PG" - Parental guidance advised, due to language.

XX "ROCK-A-DOODLE" - Don Bluth, the ex-Disney animator who created "The Land Before Time" and the original "American Tail," is back with this colorful but disappointing feature-length cartoon about a runaway rooster (voice by Glenn Campbell) and a farm boy (Tony Scott Ganger) who is transformed into a kitten by an evil owl (Christopher Plummer). The boy/kitten recruits the barnyard animals to go to the city to find the rooster, now a rock star known as "The King," who is handled by a greedy manager (Sorrell Booke) and manipulated by a showgirl (Ellen Greene). It's tempting to read this as a show-biz satire drawn from the Elvis Presley/Colonel Parker story, especially when Presley's old backup group, The Jordanaires, provides the vocals on several numbers. Unfortunately, the movie doesn't have anything that interesting on its mind. It's little more than a G-rated time-killer, cluttered with junky songs by T.J. Kuenster (who did the songs for Bluth's "All Dogs Go to Heaven"), characters who rarely engage the audience, and occasional mixtures of live-action and animation that look crude compared to such state-of-the-art demonstrations as "Who Framed Roger Rabbit." It's a harmless baby-sitter, and not much more than that. The movie opens today at the Alderwood, Bay, Broadway Market, Lewis & Clark and Seatac Mall Cinemas. "G" - General Audiences.

XXX 1/2 "NEWSIES" - Disney won't be releasing this live-action musical until next Friday, but it's holding sneak previews tomorrow afternoon at the Alderwood, Broadway Market, Crossroads and Seatac Mall, double-billed with "Beauty and the Beast." The two films share the same Oscar-winning composer, Alan Menken, who has once more come up with a collection of catchy Broadway-style tunes that are likely to become standards before the decade is over. Especially memorable is the 17-year-old hero's yearning-for-adventure ballad, "Santa Fe," which is delivered in socko fashion by Christian Bale, the gifted child star of Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun." Bale plays a turn-of-the-century New York newsboy who leads a teenagers' strike when millionaire Joseph Pulitzer (Robert Duvall) callously exploits child labor by forcing the kids to pay more to distribute his newspapers. Ann-Margret is on hand for a couple of music-hall songs, and director-choreographer Kenny Ortega has come up with several rousing, high-kicking numbers involving the newsboys' rallies. But Bale and Menken are literally what make the movie sing. Although it's been a long time since Hollywood has succeeded with this kind of stop-and-sing live-action musical, Menken's scores for "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Little Mermaid" have been preparing the way, and Bale is the right actor in the right place at the right time to put the notion across. "PG" - Parental guidance advised, due to semi-realistic treatment of turn-of-the-century poverty.

XXX 1/2 "FERNGULLY . . . THE LAST RAINFOREST" - It sounds like it might be good for you, and it is. But this ecological fairy tale is also a good time, with first-rate animation, hummable songs and a well-cast array of voices that put the songs and characters across and keep the rather sketchy storyline from getting in the way. Samantha Mathis plays a Tinkerbell-like fairy who resists the ecological warnings of her mentor (Grace Zabriskie), Christian Slater is her childhood sweetheart, Tim Curry turns up as an evil spirit unleashed by a destructive logging team, and Jonathan Ward plays a nearly braindead young logger who learns about the dangers of interfering with "the web of life." Robin Williams inevitably steals the show as Batty Koda, a demented bat who mischievously tweaks the logger's limited "Wayne's World" vocabulary ("Awesome use of the language, dude") and worries about humans invading the forest ("There goes the neighborhood"). This is one occasion when Williams' motormouth ad-libs don't overwhelm or derail the script; even his familiar John Wayne impersonation fits the character he's playing, and he's hilarious when he's describing the horrors of supermarket civilization ("Get a price check on this prune juice") and the biology lab that scrambled his brain. The songs include Williams' loopy version of Thomas Dolby's "Batty Rap," Curry's corrosive rendition of Dolby's "Toxic Love," and Jimmy Buffet's "I'm Gonna Eat Somebody, It Might as Well Be You." Elton John, Jimmy Webb and Alan Silvestri also contributed to the score. Rated "G" for general audiences, "Ferngully" will have sneak previews Sunday afternoon at the Aurora, Alderwood, Bay, Broadway Market, Crossroads, Factoria, Lewis & Clark, Seatac Mall and Totem Lake Cinemas.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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