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‘North’ (PG)

By Joe Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 22, 1994

"North" is "The Player" of kids' movies, packed with cameos by lots of talented actors and Bruce Willis. But even with all these familiar funny folks -- Jon Lovitz, Kathy Bates, Dan Aykroyd, Kelly McGillis, John Ritter, Faith Ford, Alan Arkin and more -- "North" seldom raises more than a chuckle.

Adapted from "Saturday Night Live" writer Alan Zweibel's 1984 children's fable (Zweibel himself appears as a baseball coach), "North" is a gentle, harmless and rather pedestrian fantasy about North (Elijah Wood) a smart, sensitive, all-around model boy who feels underappreciated by his preoccupied parents ("Seinfeld's" Jason Alexander and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, together at last!).

Egged on by Winchell (Matthew McCurley), the Machiavellian editor of his school newspaper, North decides to become a "free agent," auditioning new sets of folks around the world. Guided by his guardian angel (Willis), North plods from family to prospective family, from Alaska to Hawaii to Africa, only to realize there's no place like home. But while North's away, Winchell raises him as a symbol of oppressed children, forcing the moms and dads of the world to reduce chores and curfews, raise allowances and lower the voting age to 7.

Wood is a fine young actor, but maybe he should have a chat with his agent. The title role is a dud -- North just reacts to all the funny business around him. Winchell is the movie's juiciest role, and McCurley walks away with the whole movie, playing the cunning wunderkind as a Poindexterish, pint-sized Charles Foster Kane.

From the opening credits on, it's apparent that director Rob Reiner is straining for Spielbergian whimsy and sweetness, but he keeps things moving at a fair clip, so "North" never really settles down long enough to be outright boring. The movie is peppered with cinematic in-jokes and sight gags that refer, for starters, to "Harvey," "The Wizard of Oz," "E.T.," "Giant," "The Last Emperor" and "Witness." But most of these references will probably sail over the heads of younger viewers, as will the handful of weirdly dated, out-of-place adult-aimed jokes, which would flop with any age group.

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