Screens Armchair Cinephile

Anthropomorphism run amok

This month, most of us are going to spend at least a few hours with an altruistic talking lion or an ape who'll do anything for his favorite blonde. (And after thrilling to Kong once, some of us will go back for more.) For those who find they just can't get enough of animals with human qualities, the video store beckons.

From a pioneer of cute cinematic animals comes this fall's batch of Walt Disney Treasures. Two of the four titles this time around focus on live-action stuff from the '50s that was made for television. Of more interest to us are the self-explanatory The Chronological Donald, Volume 2 (mid-'40s shorts starring the grouchy Duck), and Disney Rarities: Celebrated Shorts: 1920s-1960s. The latter disc goes all the way back to 1923 for a version of Alice in Wonderland that combined cartoons with live-action, stretches to the '50s for the famous tale of Paul Bunyan and his big Blue Ox, and spends the rest of its time with various barnyard residents who never became stars like Donald and Mickey.

Moving from the barnyard to the zoo, the English production company Aardman Animation (who brought you Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run) once made a lovable short subject called Creature Comforts, in which zoo residents spoke from their cages about energy conservation. (The film was a compilation of Public Service Announcements for an English utility company.) That 1990 film - which won an Oscar - was popular enough that the animators expanded it; in a new, two hour-plus release from Sony, we get the original film plus interviews with slugs speculating about life on other planets, a tortoise reflecting on his exercise regimen, and so on.

Animals don't have to be made of clay or drawn in ink to be the focus of human fawning, of course. In this year's enormously popular The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (Docurama), San Francisco resident Mark Bittner tends to a flock of multicolored birds with bohemian names like Picasso and Mingus. These characters may have been upstaged by a doc about some tuxedo-clad, marching birds, but at least parrots can fly.

Human identification with animals proves tragic in Grizzly Man (Lions Gate), Werner Herzog's deeply involving doc about amateur animal-rights activist Timothy Treadwell. Treadwell's love for grizzly bears led him to spend 13 summers living among them, videotaping his encounters in the hopes that others would come to see that the bears deserved to live undisturbed by man; unfortunately, he grew so comfortable with them that he forgot that bears aren't as subject to sentiment as humans - he and his girlfriend were killed by a grizzly.

Moving away from real-life horror and back to the realm of Kong, Sony has just released a three-disc Ray Harryhausen Gift Set for your last-minute gift-giving pleasure. Bundling films that are already available separately, such as Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers and the giant-octopus flick It Came From Beneath The Sea, the set is capped by a monster movie that clearly owes a debt to our favorite giant monkey: 20 Million Miles to Earth, in which a lizardly beast from Venus - the missing link, maybe, between Kong and Godzilla - terrorizes such Earthlings as Joan Taylor and William Hopper. This beast is substantially less life-like than the one Andy Serkis, Peter Jackson, and a team of computer animators created for this year's epic, but it's a prime example of Harryhausen's mastery of stop-motion modeling.

Postscript: Moviegoers who are steering clear of talking animals this month may find themselves attracted to a musical about singing Nazis. If the new Anthony Lane-Matthew Broderick film fails to satisfy for some reason, be aware that MGM has just released the original Mel Brooks version of The Producers in a two-disc Deluxe Edition.

By John DeFore