'Annie' is the first live-action family musical in ages

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It isn't ''Little Awful Annie,'' as one critic suggests. But it's not a rebirth of the great musical tradition, either.

After all the publicity, and all the tales of inflated spending - up to $50 million by some reports - Annie turns out to be a reasonably entertaining movie. Adults might want to take a child along, with fresh eyes to appreciate the overblown settings and fantastic story twists. And children might want to have a grown-up in tow, to explain the ''New Deal'' that Daddy Warbucks and Franklin D. Roosevelt talk about so much. But viewers of all ages are likely to have a pretty good time.

Whatever happened to the great musical tradition, anyway? Hardly any musicals are made nowadays, and the few we do get are tricky, like ''All That Jazz,'' or revisionist, like ''New York, New York.'' Or both, like ''Pennies From Heaven.'' Based on the venerable comic strip and the hit Broadway show, ''Annie'' is the first live-action, all-family musical in ages. As such, it's considered a major commercial risk. But it's also a major opportunity to revitalize a type of innocent entertainment that has become rare.

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This said, it's too bad ''Annie'' falls flat in a few departme.ts. Most disappointing is the climax, which reaches for suspense with a contrived chase on a railroad bridge - a pointless and prolonged sequence that neither thrills nor chills. More generally, the subplots are knitted too loosely into the film's fabric, and the screenplay has enough lapses from taste to earn a PG rating.

On the plus side, ''Annie'' strikes a neat balance between its extravagant story, its boisterous musical numbers, and its neat performances. Suspend your disbelief just a smidgen, and it's hard to resist the plot about a smart-alecky kid who rises from rags to riches on the strength of curly hair and sheer chutzpah. While few of the songs are memorable, they're sung and danced with an energy that borders on mania, and who cares if some of the hoofing looks like leftovers from ''Mary Poppins''?

It's also fascinating to ponder the political implications of ''Annie,'' onstage and on-screen. The original Broadway version opened in 1977, before Reaganomics became a national phenomenon. FDR is an important characteRPz he show, and he invehts the New Deal right before our eyes, with a vivid description of government putting people back to work and reshaping the American dream. ''Annie'' is still going strong on the Uris Theater stage, and when I dropped in the other night, the New Deal speech prompted a smattering of applause.

But there was a much longer and more delighted audience response when addy Warbucks intoned the secret of his success: that it's OK to trample people on your way ''up'' as long as you aren't planning a return trip ''down.'' Among the Broadway set, at least, aggressive business tactics are definitely more popular nowadays than governmental idealism.

Perhaps reflecting current moods, the movie tones down the historical perspective. The Great Depression of the 1930s is evoked less pungently in the screen version - despite the obvious opportunities for realism - and the Washington scenes are less forceful. FDR still lectures Daddy Warbucks, insisting that business is not the only business of America. But nobody seems to care very much, one way or the other. The real business of ''Annie'' is cute little girls, the movie reminds us, and anything else is mere diversion.

Still, it's encouraging that the screen ''Annie'' makes a few gestures toward historical atmosphere, bringing the background into the foreground, and deepening what might have been a purely frivolous two hours. The director, John Huston, and the writer, Carol Sobieski, don't take Daddy Warbucks's bucks entirely at face value, and there are hints that some of his billion could be employed better than in bolstering the comfort of a single lonely capitalist.

To be sure, ''Annie'' isn't an experimental ''Pennies From Heaven'' or an analytic ''Pacific Overtures,'' or even a moody-wacky ''42nd Street.'' But there's a bit more here than the life and good times of a little girl and her dog.

GiveN the talents behind ''Annie'' and the mojey they had to work with, it's not surprising that the production values are excellent. You cervainly see that big budget on the screen, especially in a major scene like the finale, which is lavish to the point of absurdity. (By contrast, the stage show generates its warmth with a burst of Christmas cheer at the end, a ploy that's both cheaper and more appealing than the explosion of color and fireworks that erupts on the screen.)

And the cast is generally fine. In the title role, Aileen Quinn is all you could asV for, mostly avoiding the cloying cuteness that slithers through the advertising for the film. Carol Burnett is at her comical best as the Dickensian proprietor of Abnie's orphanage. Bernadette Peters and Tim Curry have the right oddball quality as Miss Burnett's would-be accomplices, and Ann Reinking - in her strongest movie role so far - is an engaging mixture of charm, savvy, and bewilderment. As the capitalistic Daddy Warbucks and the paternalistic FDR, Albert FiNney and Edward Herrmann invest flat roles with feeling, though Finney plays his part more lgftily and less humanly than his current Broadway counterpart, Harve Presnell. And yes, the canine Sandy is on hand, walking through his (her?) paces with four-footed ease. A magical, likable movie

The Escape Artist comes so close to excellence that you long for it to go all the way. Though it doesn't quite succeed, it still emerges as one of the subtlest and most thoughtful films this season, and a real standout among the few recent pictures aimed at young audiences.

The title character is a boy named Danny, whose father was a stage magician until his death. This unusual heritage dominates Danny's thoughts - he seems driven by a mixture of memory, dream, and fantasy - and impels him to master the arts of illusion and escape. His goal is to succeed where his father failed, by pulling off a dangerous water-chamber trick. But he is sidetracked by circumstances. On the run from a stifling family, he holes up with some wacky relatives in a very peculiar town, and rtrikes up a friendship with the neighborhood's most notorious oddball.

It's true that ''The Escape Artist'' uses cliches as starting points. Danny's ambitions, his hazy dreams of his father, his fascination with magic, his precocious talents - these are old ideas that have sparked many a boy's adventure before now. And there's a halfhearted love angle that seems dragged in purely for the sake of convention.

But the makers of ''The Escape Artist'' refuse to handle the old formulas in the usual ways. The pivot of the movie, Danny's relationship with the local weirdo, is genuinely unsettling. Indeed, as the older man becomes more involved with our hero, he also grows stranger and possibly more dangerous.

Reinforcing this uneasy feeling, the whole background of the story is deliberately skewed, from the goofy atmosphere of Danny's adopted home to the political corruption of the town government - especially the mayor, who happens to be the father of Danny's eccentric friend. Even the ending avoids a neat resolution, preferring loose ends to tidy contrivances.

Much of ''The Escape Artist'' is played for laughs, and there's plenty of magic on hand, including a session with the water-escape tank that must be the most squirmingly suspenseful scene of the year. The cast is first-rate, too. Griffin O'Neal (son of Ryan and brother of Tatum) is likable and believable as Danny, and Raul Julia delivers his most impressive film performance as the town nut. Teri Garr is nicely offbeat as his girlfriend; Joan Hackett and Gabriel Dell are the same as Danny's next of kin, a pair of small-town tricksters. And in a most pleasant surprise, the mischievous mayor is played by Desiderio Arnaz - yes, the Desi Arnaz of TV legend, making a welcome return to the screen.

In some senses, ''The Escape Artist'' is a follow-up to ''The Black Stallion, '' a dazzling family film that was also presented by Francis Coppola's studio, Zoetrope. The new picture is directed by Caleb Deschanel, who was responsible for the luminous ''Stallion'' photography, and again the film is aimed at a predominantly young audience.

And also like its predecessor, ''The Escape Artist'' is charged with a sense of wonder - an intimation that the world is deeper and richer than we are likely to suspect, and that children are somehow a little closer to these mysteries than the rest of us are. This is a refreshing and resonant perspective for any film to begin with, even though ''The Escape Artist'' doesn't realize its full potential. It's an imperfect movie, but a tantalizing and rewarding one. Say it with muscles

In keeping with his chosen image as a macho intellectual, John Milius begins Conan the Barbarian with a quotation from Nietzsche. But it takes only a few moments for the movie to get down to its real level, which is as thoughtful as a battle-ax.

The character of Conan was created decades ago by Robert E. Howard, an eccentric writer who belonged to the same literary circle as fantasy author H. P. Lovecraft. His vision and his prose were even more limited than Lovecraft's, and it seems that the pulpy Weird Tales magazine - to which he contributed - was his natural habitat.

Yet there's a vitality to some of the Weird Tales fiction that keeps it circulating year after year. And it's unpretentious, unlike much of today's portentous fantasy. Howard put it very well, explaining his attraction to muscle-minded heroes. ''They're simpler,'' he once said, in a remark quoted by a latter-day admirer who has helped collect and extend the ''Conan'' series. ''You get them in a jam, and no one expects you to rack your brains inventing clever ways for them to extricate themselves. They are too stupid to do anything but cut, shoot, or slug themselves into the clear.'' Howard certainly knew his limitations, as well as Conan's.

Milius doesn't. He turns his Conan film into an overblown epic, a noisy rehash of Cecil B. de Mille, with all the vulgarity and little of the cheer. The presence of James Earl Jones (fresh from his stage-shaking ''Othello'' on Broadway) lends a little class, but not enough to outweigh the crunching violence and charmless sex that are the movie's enervating stock in trade. This isn't fantasy, it's just a rehash of the latest obsessions; all Milius has done is transplant them to a stock Hollywood setting, updating the explicitness but not the sophistication. There's more Neanderthal than Nietzsche in it - which is appropriate, but hardly appealing. An elusive filmmaker

Budd Boetticher is an elusive filmmaker. His westerns with Randolph Scott were staples of the neighborhood movie palace during the 1950s, and have received serious critical analysis. Yet his pictures are rarely revived, even in ''art'' and ''revival'' theaters. In his 1968 book ''The American Cinema,'' critic Andrew Sarris began a section on him by asking, ''Does anyone know where Budd Boetticher is?''

At least we know where his last western is, after years of obscurity. A Time for Dying was made in 1969, written and directed by Boetticher. The producer was Audie Murphy, who also plays Jesse James. The movie was tied up in Murphy's estate after his death, however, and never released. Now the situation has been resolved. Corinth Films has put it into distribution, and the Public Theater in New York has given it a belated premiere.

A fascinating film it turns out to be, full of eccentric touches that give it a distinctive Boetticher flavor. The plot revolves around a novice gunman, a woman who becomes his wife - to the complete surprise of both of them - and a demented villain named Billy Pimple. Also on hand is Judge Roy Bean, in a grotesque portrayal by Victor Jory that seems bent on outdoing Walter Brennan's hysterical performance in ''Red River.''

All the characters begin as stereotypes and finish as archetypes, thanks to Boetticher's obsessive script, which pulls off some wildly unpredictable twists on the usual western conventions - especially at the climax, a starkly filmed showdown that sets Hollywood heroism on its ear, and the denouement, a dazzling ''long take'' that hoists Billy Pimple by his own petard. The crisp cinematography is by Lucien Ballard; the music - which almost swamps the story more than once - is credited to Harry Betts. Harry Knapp was the editor.

In sum, it's ''elemental but not elementary,'' to borrow a pithy Sarris phrase about Boetticher's work in general. And it's worth a close look by any western fan, or anyone curious about the last completed work of a truly original moviemaker.

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