Film review: Kid in King Arthur's Court, A

Best thing about it is what comes before: a funny new Mickey Mouse cartoon.

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 15 1995 12:00 a.m. MDT

"A Kid in King Arthur's Court" is a childish variation on a classic piece of literature that has been adapted several times before. But this one is a negligible piece of juvenile fluff.

The real ticket-item is a new Mickey Mouse cartoon, "Runaway Brain," which is fast and furious, loaded with delightful in-jokes for fans and seems far too short.

"A Kid," on the other hand, seems far too long.

— ABOUT 16 YEARS AGO Disney came up with a science-fiction variation on Mark Twain's classic "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," a bit of piffle called "Unidentified Flying Oddball" (later retitled, "A Spaceman in King Arthur's Court").

In that less-than-stellar live-action Disney flick, Ron Moody, who had gained fame as Fagin in the "Oliver Twist" musical "Oliver!" played Merlin — and he was the best thing in the film.

Now here comes Disney's latest incarnation of the same story, "A Kid in King Arthur's Court," and son-of-a-gun if Ron Moody isn't playing Merlin again. And despite the fact that his role is performed entirely as a watery vision in a well, he's the best thing in the film.

For anyone who remembers the first film, the odd result is that "A Kid" plays like a belated sequel. In fact, the opening moment has Merlin saying, "Well, here I am again." (Although, in the first movie, Merlin was a villain, and here he's a mentor to the hero.)

You may wonder why I'm dwelling on this bit of trivia. The answer is simple: It's more interesting than anything in "A Kid in King Arthur's Court."

The kid of the title is a young, inept Little League baseball player named Calvin (Thomas Ian Nichols, of "Rookie of the Year" — does that make this film a sequel to "Rookie" as well?).

During a game, Calvin steps up to the plate, strikes out, heads back to the dugout and is suddenly caught in an earthquake that sucks him into the ground, a sort of time-travel tunnel created by Merlin (with surprisingly cheesy special effects). But Merlin thinks he's summoning a brave knight. Presumably, Calvin is inadvertently snatched because his baseball team is called "The Knights."

Merlin's effort to bring a knight to Camelot is intended to help King Arthur regain control of his kingdom. It seems that the evil Lord Belasco (Art Malik) is running things these days, and Arthur is spacedout, having never fully recovered from the death of his beloved Guinevere. So, it's Calvin to the rescue, as he introduces King Arthur's court to rock music, bubblegum, Big Macs, candy bars, in-line skates and bicycles.

Meanwhile, Calvin strikes up a tentative romance (at age 14?) with the king's young daughter, Princess Katey (Paloma Baeza), and tries to help her older sister, Princess Sarah (Kate Winslet, who won acclaim for "Heavenly Creatures"), find a way to marry the commoner she loves.

In the right hands, this might have been funny stuff. But as written by J.P. Guerin and producer Robert L. Levy ("Point Break," the second "Warlock" movie) and directed by Michael Gottlieb ("Mannequin," "Mr. Nanny") it's slow, bland and seldom amusing. And they aren't above stealing gags from other, better comedies, most notably Danny Kaye's classic "The Court Jester."

"A Kid in King Arthur's Court" is rated PG for a fair amount of bloodless violence and a couple of mildly vulgar jokes.

— "RUNAWAY BRAIN," on the other hand, is a certified hit.

This first Mickey Mouse cartoon short in 42 years takes Mickey back to his roots, in both his look and his more aggressive per-sonality. And it fits like the proverbial four-fingered glove.

In style and tone — and certainly in its pacing — the short actually resembles the more recent "Roger Rabbit" cartoons than the Mickey or Donald or Goofy cartoons of old — but that's not a complaint.

The action center's around Mickey's brain being switched with that of a monster (who has more than a passing resemblance to his old nemesis Peg-Leg Pete), courtesty of a mad scientist (voiced by Kelsey Grammer, who plays TV's "Frasier"). And it doesn't let up for a moment.

There are also some delightful gags and clever touches, as when Mickey's wallet photos unfold and we see the familiar black-and-white shot of his 1927 cartoon "Steamboat Willie," and Mickey says, "Oh, that's an old one."

Too bad "Runaway Brain" isn't fronting a better live-action movie, but let's hope Disney doesn't wait too long before releasing it to video.

This one's a keeper.