"Metamorphoses" starts out with a screen full of swirling galaxies and stars, the rhythm of a heartbeat and the sensation of falling through space. But don't think you're in for an animated version of "2001" - "Metamorphoses" isn't a space-agey fantasy. Nor is it a light-hearted, fun-for-the-whole-family cartoon.

What it is is something much more original, though the advertising campaign ("Let your imagination go!") doesn't bother to tell you. It's a Japanese director's animated version of the Roman poet Ovid's epic "Metamorphoses," done in such a way that you don't have to have studied Ovid to enjoy it.

For one thing, it has great visual impact. The animation is done with imagination and flair, with images that are alternately lovely and terrifying - although the big-eyed, impish characters may be a little too Disneyesque for some tastes.

The music (there is no dialogue) is used in a powerful way to dramatize the action, and the K-B Cinema's Dolby sound system permits the best use of the soundtract. Joan Baez, the Rolling Stones and the Pointer Sisters are the big draws, although the anonymous instrumental music is just as effective.

Many of Ovid's stories depend heavily on violence to make their point, bu the film's director, Takashi, leaves most of the gore to the viewer's imagination. The result is that the film is scarier than any of today's blood-and-guts movies could ever be.

The morals of the stories are refreshingly basic: Do unto others, etc., and you'll get your reward. Don't be greedy, vain or vindictive. And especially, don't fool around with the gods. No degree in poetry needed to understand that.

It would help, though, to be up on your Roman mythology. It detracts from the plot (such as it is) to find yourself trying to remember the name and function of the goddess who wears the welder's hat with the little curved blade on top.

"Metamorphoses" isn't a mainstream movie. Don't expect to wander in off the beach and get the Japanese equivalent of "Fantasia". But if you want a respite from the Jaws-Grease-Omen syndrome of summertime flicks, you could do a lot worse.