on April 17, 1998 by Kim Williamson
   This "`Babe' with a beak" tells the story of a parrot named Paulie (voiced by Jay Mohr) who can comprehend and speak human language. Besides the difference in genus from his cute porcine predecessor, this talking animal has a salty, streetwise nature--which serves not only to distinguish him further from Babe but also to make him less likable. The movie fractures from the get-go, when it--framed in flashback--begins to follow the journeys of Paulie after being taken from Marie, the little girl (newcomer Hallie Kate Eisenberg) who so desperately needs her pet. Her father Warren ("Masterminds'" Matt Craven) long gone away from home in the service, Marie has grown into a little girl but stutters; on his return, he sternly pressures her to speak normally, but only with Paulie's help does Marie find herself beginning to accomplish that goal. Thinking her belief that Paulie can actually converse is detrimental to her development, however, Warren gets rid of Paulie.
   Although these early scenes depend on a geologic fault in Laurie Craig's script--Marie's parents don't seem to be able to hear Paulie speaking or at least believe it, even though other adults later in the film have no difficulty--the key problem is that the little girl is more sympathetic than her bird: Marie is the film's Babe. When the camera of director John Roberts ("The War of the Buttons") leaves the little girl behind to track Paulie's cross-country exploits as the bird seeks to be rejoined with her, the movie's emotional resonance is silenced, afterward to be heard only in occasional whimpers.
   Although the Katzenberg Memo casting that is becoming a troubling trademark of DreamWorks productions doesn't lead to any players not being able to handle their roles onscreen, aside from Eisenberg none produce any magic, either, which for a fantasy is hardly a good sign. Among the supporting and cameo turns are Gena Rowlands as a widow who gets Paulie on his way westward before she goes blind and dies ("the cat got her" is Paulie's emotionally odd comment); Cheech Marin ("Tin Cup") as an illegal Hispanic who makes Paulie part of his performing-parrot troupe at his East L.A. taco stand before being rousted by police; Jay Mohr ("Picture Perfect"), who besides voicing Paulie is also onscreen as small-time crimer Benny who sees the bird as his ticket to ill-gotten gains until a heist goes bad; Bruce Davison ("The Crucible") as Dr. Reingold, a reputation-seeking researcher who, as his name suggests, wants to cage this treasure at all costs; and Tony Shalhoub ("Big Night") as lonely Russian immigrant Misha, an institute "mop monkey" (janitor) who befriends the bird, listens to his tale and frees Paulie from his scientific internment. Trini Alvarado ("Little Women") makes a late appearance as the now-grown and romance-ready Marie, but that happy climax for Paulie and Misha is both so demanded and demanding that its impact isn't withering; it just withers.
   The special effects on this Mutual Film production by the likes of London's Computer Film Company, Santa Barbara Studios, Light Matters/Pixel Envy and Sony Imageworks and the animatronics by Stan Winston range from excellent to acceptable. Less successful, very surprisingly, is the work of cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts, Oscar-nominated for "A Room With a View" and "Howards End." Lacking a colorful palette, and with helmer Roberts moving the plot forward more than moving the audience, "Paulie" has a flat feel that, like the film's cast, never allows the fantasy to blossom.
   Recent years' live-action family films have had a rocky road at the boxoffice. Warner's "A Little Princess" (1995) and Paramount's "FairyTale: A True Story" (1997) shared cinematic excellence and auditorium emptiness; even Universal's "Babe," heralded as a smash, brought in but $64 million domestically, ranking it 28th among 1995 releases--just above "The American President," remembered as a disappointment. Despite its Spielberg/Katzenberg/Geffen corporate imprimatur, "Paulie" is unlikely to give wing to change.    Starring Hallie Kate Eisenberg, Gena Rowlands, Jay Mohr, Cheech Marin, Bruce Davison, Tony Shalhoub and Trini Alvarado. Directed by John Roberts. Written by Laurie Craig. Produced by Mark Gordon, Gary Levinsohn and Allison Lyon Segan. A DreamWorks release. Fantasy. Rated PG for brief mild language. Running time: 91 min.
Tags: Starring Hallie Kate Eisenberg, Gena Rowlands, Jay Mohr, Cheech Marin, Bruce Davison, Tony Shalhoub, Trini Alvarado, Directed by John Roberts. Written by Laurie Craig. Produced by Mark Gordon, Gary Levinsohn, Allison Lyon Segan, DreamWorks, Fantasy

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