'Pirate Movie' not worth its salt

Kristy McNichol is such a personable young woman that it's sad to see her stuck in something as bad as ''The Pirate Movie.'' A rehash of ''The Pirates of Penzance,'' with pop songs and corny dialogue where Gilbert and Sullivan once reigned, this has nothing to do with the lively ''Penzance'' now running on Broadway, which is also being made into a film. The songs are drippy, the jokes are silly or tasteless, and most of the performances are limp.

Yet the redoubtable McNichol is charming enough when not completely swamped by her material. You can tell she enjoyed making the movie, which was filmed in Australia by director Ken Annakin. In fact, she always enjoys her work, she told me over lunch a couple of weeks ago. A new challenge is fun -- like the song-and-dance scenes in this picture -- and even the chore of memorizing lines is no problem for an actress who can ''see'' the dialogue in her mind's eye after a quick perusal of the script.

In sum, she's a pro, as she should be after a decade in show business, beginning with TV commercials at an age when most children are preoccupied with spelling and arithmetic. Although her life has been unusual so far, she has few misgivings about it, except that time off has been limited, and she is just now learning how to relax and ''be less serious about things.''

To that end, she's taking a long-awaited vacation after her ''Pirate'' escapade, but still looking forward to her next picture, in which she will play a handicapped person. Her favorite among her movies to date? ''Little Darlings.'' Many of her fans would agree. A new life for animation?

Mixed news from the animation front. On the down side, cartoonists from four major animation houses have gone on strike against their producers. A key issue is the practice of sending cartoons to overseas studios for animation work, while unemployment continues right in Hollywood and most artists with jobs reportedly work only six months a year because of production schedules. The last previous strike by cartoonists took place three years ago.

Yet even now, growing enthusiasm for cartoons is stimulating a boom in animated films. The show-business newspaper Variety reports that Gary Kurtz, producer of ''Star Wars'' and ''The Empire Strikes Back,'' is launching two cartoon features based on American comic strips. ''The Spirit,'' budgeted at $12 million, stars a masked crime fighter.

''Little Nemo,'' tagged at $15 million, will be written by fantasy specialist Ray Bradbury, and will be drawn by cartoonists in the United States and Japan. It's about a 12-year-old boy who has fantastic adventures in a dream world.

Meanwhile, producer Kurtz is finishing up the live-action fantasy ''Dark Crystal'' and preparing for a collaboration with Walt Disney Productions called ''Return to Oz.'' According to Variety, he plans to use new technology - computer graphics and such - to speed the animating process and lighten the load for his artists. Sounds as if cartooning is in for a new heyday.

Mini-movies long on freshness

Stuart Sherman is prolific, all right. But never long-winded. Before a recent show at Inroads, a theater in lower Manhattan, I asked how many films he planned to screen that evening. ''About 14 or 15,'' he replied, and I would have staggered if I hadn't known most of his movies are just a couple of minutes long.

Sherman loves a crisp, concise gesture. In his live performances -- he calls them ''spectacles'' -- he manipulates little objects, whisking them into new relationships that are as good-humored as they are unexpected. It's often hard to figure out what he's getting at, but his wit and inventiveness are nonstop.

His films show the same sensibility. Most are based on visual rhymes, pulling different shots and images into neat new juxtapositions. And lately his style has been branching in fresh directions. A movie made in Paris, for example, uses street scenes and long shots in a way that's quite a departure from the miniaturism of most of his pictures. Similarly, there's an unaccustomed moodiness to a minidrama shot in a New York hotel. And the hitherto silent Sherman has finally discovered sound, using noises to create an evocative counterpoint in a film about horses.

A poet and a purist, Sherman works according to his own lights, creating a body of work that's agreeable even when it's mystifying. One looks forward to further revelations as his approach continues to develop and diversify. Coming up: his version of ''Hamlet,'' due this fall at the Performing Garage in New York.

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