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

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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.)

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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.