Cinema: Festive Film Fare for Thanksgiving

With a Mermaid as hostess, Magnolias on the table -- and a turkey called Valmont

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These days, nearly every popular movie wants to be a cartoon. For proof, check out 1989's five top hits: Batman; Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade; Lethal Weapon 2; Honey, I Shrunk the Kids; Ghostbusters II. They all aspire to the freedom of form and story that any animated film takes for granted. Problem is, real life gets in the way. Location shooting is at the whim of weather; special effects can look chintzy onscreen. And actors! They cost the moon, and their bodies aren't elastic enough to perform the comic contortions that Daffy Duck can give you with the wave of an animator's pen. So here's a tip for the '90s, Hollywood: junk the live-action movie. Just make cartoons.

Disney and Don Bluth can lead the way. Walt Disney, after all, created the genre, turning barnyard animals into superstars and a Sunday-supplement curiosity into the movie's most enduring subspecies. Bluth, a Disney renegade, showed his old masters that the cartoon possessed a social vitality for the '80s. Bluth's The Secret of NIMH was a parable on animal experimentation; An American Tail found much to say, endearingly, about melting-pot prejudice; The Land Before Time found love and death among the dinosaurs. Now Disney and Bluth have launched a welcome new Thanksgiving tradition, each producing a feature cartoon for the rescue of baby-sitters and the beguilement of the child in every moviegoer.

In All Dogs Go to Heaven, Bluth takes a vacation from portent and dips into anecdote. Listen for familiar echoes (Little Miss Marker, Heaven Can Wait, even Disney's 1988 cartoon Oliver & Company) in the story of Charlie, a German shepherd who is reprieved from death and befriends a little girl kidnaped by his scurvy old gang. Visually, the picture is swathed in Bluth's trademark golden browns and moody blues. Aurally, it's a reunion of the Burt Pack: Burt Reynolds is the voice of Charlie, Loni Anderson is the moll Flo, the exuberantly flustered Dom DeLuise is Charlie's pal Itchy. All Dogs dawdles a bit, but it offers the requisite charm and a poignant moral: some things, like friendship and honor, are worth dying for.

The end of The Little Mermaid wrestles with no such ambiguities. It comes with flourishes, a rainbow and a perfect kiss -- full heartstring accompaniment. But from the first frame, Disney's suave storytellers cue you to wonderment in their adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. Ariel is a mermaid princess with a teenager's yen to travel beyond her world and become part of the forbidden one above. To her father, King Triton of the Mer-people, humans are "spineless, savage, harpooning fish eaters." To Ariel they are skyrockets and sea chanteys and buried treasure -- the thrilling unknown. Then she spies hunky, lonely Prince Eric, and it's impossible love at first sight. For Eric, when he is saved by the mermaid and nursed by her caressing song, it's love at first sound. A cross-species Romeo and Juliet: boy meets gill.

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