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MOVIE REVIEWS : 'Babar': Warm, Delightful Family Adventure

July 28, 1989|SHEILA BENSON

Funny to see the influences of "Indiana Jones" and " 'Crocodile' Dundee" casting their shadows on the film version of a character as presumably sturdy and indelible as Babar the Elephant, but they're there, sure as grosses are grosses.

To be sure, the ample young king of "Babar: The Movie" (citywide) doesn't crack a bullwhip and he still wears a crown, not a Stetson, but the perils that lurk for him, Celeste and the mischievous monkey Zephir have a distinctly Indiana-ish flavor. And the Crocodile, who turns out to be such an ally to these brave little elephants, has a broad Australian accent.

Very young children, who will be this movie's best audience, may not get the joke, particularly the Dundee one. But it's interesting to see that, with all the approaches that could have be taken in adapting the classic Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff books for today's action-saturated children, the choice was to make this first feature an elephant action-adventure; granted that it's a warm, family elephant action-adventure.

Those who worry that a beloved set of characters has been properly treated needn't worry . . . too much. Toronto's Nelvana animation house--which has done the "Ewoks" and "Droids" for television with Lucasfilm, as well as "The Care Bears" series and the "Babar" segments on Nickelodeon--has seen to it that Babar still looks like his dear self, pin-dots for eyes, natty green suit, gold crown and all. We recognize too his lifelong love, Celeste, seen here both as a slip of a thing and as a suitably matronly mama of four. Only the sage old Cornelius seems to have shed a few of his wiggly lines, which represented his extreme age. Would that it were that simple.

Presumably down the line we can get to the details that kids also love about Babar: the little, just-orphaned elephant who was found, outfitted, loved and tutored by the Old Lady who lived in such a sophisticated (and thoroughly French) city. And how he grew into such authority and wisdom that when he became homesick and journeyed back to Elephantland, proving himself in the process, the elephant elders crowned him their new king.

"Babar: The Movie" plunges right in, assuming that the children have a few of those introductions under their belts. After a witty, full-scale Elephantland Victory Parade, including a drum major doing baton tricks and the royal family on a float, with the royal children throwing peanuts, King Babar tells his four wiggly children the tale of their country's victory against the rhinos as a bedtime story.

As we shift back to the past, Babar and Celeste have little-children voices, a bit more trying than the splendid voice Gordon Pinsent gives the mature Babar. The rhinos are still led by the malevolent Rataxes, although there's been a subtle shift in his characterization since the books.

You'd be hard-pressed, looking at Rataxes, to believe that this took place in or around Africa, in spite of the all-African-animal cast. Rataxes' soldiers wear conquistadors' armor and all the architectural details around him are Mayan, not African. It may be better, in this day and age, than making your villain into a rhino Idi Amin, but it's something of a geographic leap.

Babar's ingenuity in defeating Rataxes at Elephantland's very gates is, if memory serves, right from the book and thunderingly, ground-shakingly splendid. The film is also full of songs, mostly unmemorable, with the exception of a sprightly number in praise of red tape. It's done in razzmatazz style by two fussy courtiers, Cornelius and Pompadour, sung by their actors, Chris Wiggins and Stephen Ouimette, respectively, and written by Phil Balsam. If more of "Babar" hit this tone, it would be an enchantment. As it is, "Babar: The Movie" is pleasant, occasionally delightful and certainly a safe niche for the young 'uns.

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