The Pagemaster (U). The Neverending Story III (U). Vanya on 42nd Street (U). Robin Buss reviews recent films, with a literary flavour.
Two of the major new releases for the holiday season have been films promoting the moral benefits of reading - though it has to be said that either of them could have been made purely on hearsay, by people who have never opened a book in their lives, or else learned to read when they were very young, and can't recall that it did them much harm. The books being plugged here are a specific kind of imaginative literature: the very sort of thing that an earlier generation of parents and educators considered, at best, a waste of a child's time. Those parents would have loved Richard, the boy played by Macaulay Culkin in The Pagemaster, whose head is full of useful facts. He knows, for example, that three per cent of household accidents involve ladders, so he sensibly avoids them. He also knows the risk of getting struck by lightning, so when caught out in a thunderstorm, he heads for the nearest public building. It is a library, where a bizarre accident transforms Richard into an animated drawing of himself (what are the odds on that, I wonder?), which is then conducted by three lovable, book-shaped characters through the fictional worlds of horror, adventure and fantasy.
The animation that brings to life characters such as Dr Jekyll and Long John Silver is excellent, particularly in the sea scenes. But they make up an uninspired reading list, as banal as the plot of the film, in which Richard becomes the hero who has to prove himself against various dangers. The argument is that he will not, as his grandparents would have supposed, see books as an escape from reality, but that he will emerge more ready to face the perils of life. But you wouldn't like to bet on it.
In the second sequel to The Neverending Story, fantasy invades the real world, let in by Bastian (Jason James Richter), whose whole life story is a continuing fiction (don't worry if you didn't see Parts One and Two; the premises are silly, but easily explained).
This time, Bastian has trouble with a new step-sister and with a gang of adolescent punks known as The Nasties. Time, one feels, will probably transform The Nasties into the sort of young people to whom you would willingly entrust the keys of your car, but Bastian can't wait and has greater faith in the power of the written word. Sure enough, literature does the trick.
This is a co-production, in which the major partner was German and the fantasy world is peopled by trolls and other woodland characters suggesting Northern European mythology (skilfully brought to life by the Jim Henson workshops). But the film's language is English and Bastian's everyday world is an American high school, nowadays an environment to which every child can relate.
And there you have it: "reality" in both these films lies not beyond the front door, but in the corner of the living room, where the television pours out a stream of facts and images, reflecting essentially American experiences and anxieties.
Apparently, Louis Malle's film about Andre Gregory's production of Uncle Vanya is one of three screen versions of Chekhov's masterpiece that we shall see this year. Beautifully acted and edited, it transports the experience and anxieties of its characters from the 19th-century Russian countryside to a decrepit theatre in Manhattan, without the help of models or animation, conveying not only the playwright's message about life and its disappointments, but also the true universality of that message. A treat, if you can find it - and especially for anyone studying the play.