NEW YORK — PEOPLE who can tear themselves away from ``The Simpsons'' long enough to visit their local theater are finding a cartoon there, too. ``Jetsons: The Movie'' is based on the popular TV show about a futuristic family - a program that had only one season back in 1962, but managed to syndicate its 24 episodes for more than 20 uninterrupted years. New installments were made in 1985 and 1987, and now it's the wide screen at last. Some observers are saying it's the success of ``Who Framed Roger Rabbit'' that has put theatrical cartoons back in fashion. In fact, though, they've always been popular - not dozens of them per year, but usually two or three, customarily arriving in the summertime when kids are out of school.
The best of these, produced by the Walt Disney studio or the team of Don Bluth and Steven Spielberg, are made in the old-fashioned style known as ``full animation,'' with lots of hand-painted details and a constant sense of movement. Less impressive are cartoons in the ``limited animation'' format - like those on Saturday-morning TV, where the drawings (and therefore the details and movements) are held to a minimum in order to keep the budget low.
``Jetsons: The Movie'' comes straight from TV-land, which isn't surprising since it was produced and directed by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, two pioneers of limited animation. From start to finish, it looks colorful but cheap.
TV formulas also determine the story of ``Jetsons: The Movie,'' which could have been borrowed from almost any family sitcom. George gets a new job, running a factory in outer space that's so automated there's only one employee for him to boss around. His wife and kids have a little trouble getting used to their new home in the Intergalactical Garden Estates, but soon that's forgotten as a new crisis looms: Someone is sabotaging the sprocket factory, and George has to fix things fast.
The plot seems completely frivolous at first, but it has a message to convey, and the filmmakers don't worry about subtlety when it's time for their sermon at the end. Fortunately it's a constructive message - about getting along with people who're different, saving the environment by recycling, and caring for the planet we live on. This portion of the movie is very '90s and ``new age.''
What's not so progressive is the atmosphere of the story before the preachy part. Despite its futuristic gimmicks, the movie is pure 1950s in many ways and loaded with stereotypes. The men have jobs and earn money; the women keep house and shop all day; the daughter obsesses about boys and rock concerts; the son dreams up quirky adventures.
It's interesting to find the up-to-date ecology of ``Jetsons: The Movie'' side by side with such a backward-looking family portrait, which looks comfy but reinforces limited ideas about men and women that Hollywood should be growing out of by now. Taken together, the '50s stereotypes and ``new age'' finale make this picture quite a time-warping experience - which gets even zanier during a musical interlude full of pop art and ``psychedelia'' straight from the '60s.
``Jetsons: The Movie'' has a few smiles and thrills to offer, at least for very young moviegoers. But here's hoping their parents let them know there's more to being a family than this picture shows - and more to the art of animation than Mr. Hanna and Mr. Barbera care to give us.