A Thanksgiving feast of fun flicks

Three family films feature cool critters, off-the-wall humor, and adventurous animation

Moviegoers are greeting the latest family films with high expectations, which poses a challenge for the new pictures.

A bug's life could be dubbed a disappointment if it pleases fewer viewers than the delightful "Toy Story" (1995), also made by Disney and Pixar - and it's competing with the popular "Antz," which is still piling up box-office dollars. Audiences might boo Babe: Pig in the City if it doesn't outshine memories of the original "Babe," an enormous hit three years ago. The Rugrats Movie has instant name recognition from the Nickelodeon series that spawned it, but can it live up to the hopes of its TV fans?

All are certain to prove profitable when their ancillary earnings (cable, cassette, and so on) are eventually tallied, but "a bug's life" will probably emerge as the box-office champ. True, it's less creative than "Toy Story" and may seem less original than "Antz," since it visits the same creepy-crawly branch of the animal kingdom. It's liberally spiced with off-the-wall humor, though, and its top-flight cartooning will keep any animation buff happy.

Taking its cue from "The Seven Samurai," of all things, the tale begins in an ant colony tormented by bullying grasshoppers who demand annual payoffs in return for "protection" from dangerous enemies, namely themselves.

Angered by this injustice, one feisty ant volunteers to scout some larger insects to drive the grasshoppers away. The colony cheers him on, not because they think his plan will work, but because it'll keep the young scatterbrain out of their lives for a while. He travels to the big city and makes the mistake of his life, recruiting a "warrior gang" that's actually a circus troupe desperate for any audience it can find.

The climactic battle ultimately takes place, and while the winners are obvious, flighty grasshoppers are no match for ants. The confrontation takes enough twists to build suspense.

Not surprisingly, the movie's most impressive asset is its computer-generated animation, which brings physical and psychological realism to all manner of impossible characters and improbable situations. On this level it equals its competitors, although "Toy Story" has more sophisticated wit and "Antz" etches a more pungent struggle between tyranny and freedom.

On the downside, nitpickers may notice inconsistencies. At the beginning the unimaginative ants can scarcely figure out how to walk around a leaf in their path. But by the end, they're pulling off stunts more ingenious than most humans could handle.

More important, the picture's implied messages about the value of individuality aren't exactly enhanced by a story in which 90 percent of the characters are identical faces in an ant-colony crowd. This won't matter much to youngsters in search of holiday fun, however, and viewers of all ages can cheer Disney and Pixar for following their "Toy Story" triumph with another high-quality entertainment. The voices include Dave Foley as the hero, Kevin Spacey as the villain, and Phyllis Diller as the queen.

"A bug's life" has the highest publicity profile of the Thanksgiving releases, but many moviegoers have also been awaiting "Babe: Pig in the City," continuing the adventures of everyone's favorite talking pig.

This time he goes to the big city, or more precisely, to a cartoonish megalopolis that could be New York, Hollywood, Venice, or any number of other places, depending on which landmarks you look at. He's there to appear in a sheepherding show, earn a fee, and bail out his bankrupt farm. But the plan goes astray, landing Babe in a strange new home populated by performing monkeys, singing cats, friendly dogs, and an old entertainer with a weird magic act.

The picture has lots of chases, suspense scenes, and last-minute rescues, enhanced with computer effects that bring the story to uproarious life. But the main thing any parent should know is that it's not a movie for young children or anyone else likely to be unsettled by bizarre, often violent, sometimes nightmarish images that gleefully distort the usual conventions of movie animation, not to mention real life. Proceed with caution.

"The Rugrats Movie" is more familiar fare and will surely rake in more profits with its comic story of a newborn baby, a jealous brother, and a scary trip into the wild woods. The movie has been criticized for being less homebound and more smirky than its TV counterpart, but it's milder than many of today's animated entertainments. Whoopi Goldberg and Iggy Pop are among the celebrities heard in the cast.

* All have G ratings. 'A bug's life' and 'The Rugrats Movie' have moments of violence that could bother young children. 'Babe: Pig in the City' has many bizarre and violent images. David Sterritt's e-mail address is sterrittd@csps.com

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