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Brave Attempts To Outdo Disney

HOW do you compete with the Walt Disney people?

That's the problem confronting any filmmaker who embarks on a full-length animated movie. For decades, the Disney style has dominated motion-picture cartooning, through the continuing influence of early classics like "Pinocchio" and "Dumbo" and the fresher success of latter-day hits like "The Little Mermaid" and this year's "Beauty and the Beast."

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Still, it isn't carved in stone that one studio should reap all the rewards of the animation field. Other voices cry occasionally to be heard, and this season has brought two ambitious attempts to steal some of Disney's thunder.

True to the Disney tradition, both "FernGully ... The Last Rainforest" and "Rock-a-Doodle" aim primarily at a very young audience, while also trying to include a few elements that will amuse parents and other young adults. The grown-up hook in "FernGully" is a socially conscious message about the importance of conserving the natural world. The main villain is an evil spirit who commandeers a tree-cutting rig to attack not only his enemies, but also the beauty and harmony of nature itself.

There is nothing wrong with the environmentally alert message of "FernGully," and it is decked out in some spritely animation, directed by Bill Kroyer. Better that children should be watching a well-produced plea for conservation than the frivolous junk that traditionally jams TV screens on Saturday mornings.

But most of the characters seem rather old hat to my eyes, stuck in grooves established by (yes) the Disney studio many years ago. And the picture's consciousness-raising function goes kerflooey when an animated man tells an animated woman she's a "bodacious babe." Would such a miscalculation have slipped past the quality-control department over at Disney?

The message of "Rock-a-Doodle" is somewhat less sober: Elvis Presley isn't dead, he's a chicken! The rooster hero of this cartoon certainly looks like the late rock star and sounds a little like him, too - especially when he leaves the farm where he grew up and becomes a singing sensation in the big city. As every moviegoer knows, this sort of adventure carries big risks, and our hero has to rediscover the simple values of love and friendship before his story can meander to a happy ending.

"Rock-a-Doodle" has some amiable moments, but its merits are undermined by a gimmick the movie doesn't need: a live-action subplot about a real little boy who gets involved in the rooster's life-and-death battle with the supernatural powers of an evil owl. These sequences are so ineptly filmed that they damage the effectiveness of the movie's capably crafted animation.

"Rock-a-Doodle" was directed by Don Bluth, a Disney alumnus whose credits include the very good "Mrs. Brisby and the Secret of NIMH" and the Steven Spielberg production "An American Tail." He has a few good tricks up his sleeve in "Rock-a-Doodle," but not enough to please spectators of all ages.

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