For 'Andre,' a seal of disapproval

August 17, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"Andre" is set in 1962, and if it weren't for the presence of a few modern faces, you'd think it was made in 1962.

That's not really meant as a compliment. The movie seems to hail from the grand old days of movie hooie when all families were happy, all wives devoted, all children photogenic and all pets imbued with the saintly virtues of Thomas of Aquinas -- a kind of rosy gloss on reality that, as a value, has happily left film culture except for occasional retro appearances.

In other words, it's "Lassie" with a seal.

Banal and bland, it chronicles the dithery vicissitudes of the Whitney family, when Andre comes to stay with them. He's actually a sea lion, for those who know their marine life, but he's the best thing by far in the film: a natural performer and cut-up, class clown as warm-blooded torpedo, with a rude penchant for making nasty raspberry-like sounds. Not since Flipper has a marine mammal had such exquisite comedy timing.

The Whitneys, unfortunately, are far less interesting. The setting is the fishing village of Rockport, Maine, and the father, played by Keith Carradine, is the harbor master. He's not a beloved figure, however. His sentimentality toward animals has isolated him from the town fishermen, who must adapt a more practical ethic toward things that swim in the deep. A "Have you hugged your haddock today?" bumper sticker won't put food on the table.

Meanwhile, his youngest daughter Toni (Tina Majorino) has had difficulties making friends at school, for reasons not entirely clear, though perhaps reflective of her father's uncertain position. When an injured seal shows up, Carradine takes it to the picturesque family homestead -- a $20 million spread overlooking the harbor -- and the seal and the little girl bond in completely predictable ways.

It's another example of anthropomorphism gone berserk, in which the creature is inflated with human sagacity to the point of destroying the picture. The seal is not a seal so much as some kind of social worker and family counselor, who magically humiliates the Whitneys' enemies (a pompous teacher, a brusque, embittered fisherman) while allowing them to heal their tiny wounds and come together as a family.

He's also a pretty good TV critic. Andre cultivates a fondness for the tube, and saves his rudest barks for the animal-centric TV of the time, mainly "Lassie" and "Rin-Tin-Tin." And what sort of a movie does he think he's in? A hypocritical seal! I hate it when they do that.

But generally not a moment of it is particularly believable, and even Carradine, who's done some good work in offbeat pictures like"McCabe & Mrs. Miller" and "Nashville" (for Robert Altman), isn't very interesting.

Of the humans, Keith Szarabajka, who was Kevin Costner's bad boy chum in "A Perfect World," and got a bullet in the head for his troubles, is excellent in sketching in the rage of a man less fortunate than the callow, self-important Carradine.

The worst nonsense of all is a complicated child-in-jeopardy gambit at the movie's conclusion, where the seal makes Rin-Tin-Tin look like he can't even read Sanskrit or Lassie look like she can't do calculus, masterminding a clever rescue that implies a level of conceptual thinking absent in most humans.

The most indiscriminating sub-8-year-olds will probably eat it up; it annoyed this post-8-year-old intensely.

The director, George Miller, once made a terrific animal picture: It was called "The Man from Snowy River," a densely plotted action movie in which the horses were real characters, with personalities and histories, yet always stayed horses. He should have looked at it before he let himself turn a seal into a saint.



Starring Keith Carradine and Tina Majorino

Directed by George Miller

Released by Paramount



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