SOUTH AFRICAN filmmaker Jamie Uys hides his real intent -- an epic documentary on the Bushmen of the Kalahari -- inside a slapstick romantic comedy. What'll they think of next?

"The Gods Must Be Crazy" is like nothing you've ever seen, a one-of-a-kind experience that's both strange and wonderful. It's most like an anthology of vintage Disney -- a wildlife narrative, a fairy tale with little people, and a love story suitable for general audiences. And that doesn't count the guerrillas hiding out in a banana grove, running from bunch to bunch like flickering cowboys in a moving picture show.

The story begins in idyllic Botswana, where the gentle, pre-Stone Age Bushmen dwell in the dry, blond grass with fun-loving rhinos who get into the act by stamping out the Bushmen's campfires to prevent forest fires. Paddy O'Byrne narrates over the clicking language of the Bushmen, describing them as happy and bright, like slaves in "My Old Kentucky Home." But this is a daring film for South Africa.

N!xau, a Bushman who has long since turned his back on show biz and returned to the Kalahari, stars as the mythical hero Xi. He and his family enjoy a simple life, untouched by civilization except for the occasional plane, which they mistake for evidence of godly flatulence.

All this changes when these same "gods" deposit a Coke bottle in the veldt, a gift that has many uses but disrupts the harmony of the community, which is unaccustomed to having only one of anything, especially such a beautiful thing. Soon the people start to argue and conk one another over the head just like any other civilized people, and so Xi begins his epic journey to the ends of the earth to lose "the evil thing."

On the way, he encounters the "ugliest woman he has ever seen," a white schoolteacher who has been stuck overnight with a clumsy microbiologist who adores her. Xi hopes to persuade them to take back the bottle, having concluded that they are gods who fell from a jeep which is hanging in a nearby tree.

You'd think South Africa was a million light years away, as Uys chooses to sidestep the apartheid issue, but his choice of form -- myth and moral -- confronts it in a subtle, positive way.

THE GODS MUST BE CRAZY -- At the Outer Circle and the KB Janus.