Like the werewolves who are its subject matter, Philippe Mora's "Howling III: The Marsupials" can't quite decide what kind of an animal it is. Mora has indicated that he wanted his second entry in this genre (he also did "Howling II") to be funny, and quite often it is, though not always in the places he intended. But without a frame of reference, such as being addicted to werewolf movies, much of the humor will fall flat.

Maybe it's part of the joke, but Mora has made an impassioned appeal for the acceptance of werewolves in today's society. Yes, "Howling III" is the first shot in what can only be described as Lycanthrope Lib, and if one reads into it other issues -- such as gay rights and interracial marriage -- that's probably okay with Mora, too.

"Howling III" is much better than the shoddy "II" but nowhere near as sharp as the Joe Dante original. It's trendy enough to shift the action to Australia, where the werewolves too are just a little different. They're marsupials descended from the probably extinct Tasmanian wolf, which means they rear their young in their pouches, just like kangaroos and koalas.

The movie begins with the lovely Jerboa (the lovely Imogen Annesley) running away from her quiet little outback village for the bright lights of Sydney. On the bus someone asks why she's leaving home, and she says, matter-of-factly, "because my stepfather tried to rape me and he's a werewolf." Good conversation stopper, that one.

In Sydney, Jerboa is discovered by Donny (Leigh Biolos, a poor man's Kyle who signs her up for a bit part in a monster film he's working on. During the shooting, and later at a screening of "It Came From Uranus," she keeps dropping hints like "It doesn't really happen like that." But Donny's in love, and before you know it, Jerboa's bearing him a furry little blue-eyed whatchamacallit, which arrives in a fairly explicit birthing scene, crawling up her stomach before plopping into the pouch. To Donny's credit, his first reaction is, "It's really great. Is it a boy or is it a girl?"

Of course, the lovers aren't left to howl alone. There's a crusading anthropologist (Barry Otto); a defecting Russian ballerina of the more traditional arctic werewolf species (she's come to mate, mate); a trio of cackling wolves dressed as nuns; a marsupial pack leader (Max Fairchild) who looks like your basic professional wrestler; and various bad guys ranging from an American president to all soldiers who hunt wolves.

Mora's got some intriguing strands to weave together, but the film has no internal rhythm (though it has incessant and usually inadequate music pulsing under every scene). The changeovers are surprisingly mild in this age of great special-effects expectations. Perhaps it's because the director seems unsure how he really feels about werewolves.

He portrays the wolf pack as benign gypsies, then has the nuns murder an entire hospital staff to free Jerboa. Elsewhere, he takes the "Teen Wolf" approach, painting his werewolves as basically misunderstood folks who occasionally lose control, usually when they're backed into a corner by society. (And what are we to make of a once-bitten doctor's dismissal of a colleague's concern with the comment that "it takes more than a bite, it's got to be an exchange of body fluids"?)

The werewolf life portrayed in the last 20 minutes of the film seems very California: kind of idyllic, communal and back-to-nature. Once they've gotten rid of that awkward tot fur, those werewolf teens look super. Too bad the movie can't keep pace.

Howling III: The Marsupials, now playing at area theaters, is rated R.