Times Staff Writer

Youngsters may forever be blowing bubbles, but there’s never been one like the translucent sphere that the three young “Explorers” (citywide) unexpectedly generate from their homemade computer. This “bubble” can tear through walls like a bullet and expand to contain a quaint-looking spacecraft assembled from junk by the boys.

“Explorers” itself is bubble-thin, but it glides by gracefully on the charm of its three young heroes and their vividly envisioned adventure in space. It’s also a truly gentle film, one of the precious few that actually is suitable for children. Written by the first-time-out Eric Luke and directed by “Gremlins’ ” Joe Dante, “Explorers” takes a long time getting off the ground and really hasn’t a clue as to how to land again properly, but the confrontation between the boys and some crustacean-like aliens does catch us up.

These endearing, antennaed creatures, inhabitants of an eerie chambered nautilus of a spaceship, do impressions of everybody from Ed Sullivan to Little Richard. Encircled by giant, wrap-around TV screens, they have grown up on generations of reruns from Earth. The young aliens recognize the goodness of their human counterparts, but television has given them a terrifying impression of adult earthlings. A fast montage of clips from old science fiction flicks shows the visitors what TV has taught the aliens about humans’ treatment of creatures from outer space. Television’s chilling reflection of humanity is at the core of this fable of innocence, and it’s a provocative conceit. You only wish that the entire film were this original.


“Explorers,” pleasant as it is, is perhaps best left to youngsters because until its dreamlike finale, it offers little to engage grown-ups. The establishing of the personalities of the three boys--handsome Ethan Hawke, the group’s dreamer; bespectacled River Phoenix, the scientist among them, and deep-voiced Jason Presson, the sturdy survi vor from the wrong side of the tracks--and their building of their spacecraft is probably more fun for impressionable kids than the adults who might be with them. All three, however, are enormously likable, individual and natural under Dante’s direction.

With its carefully restored 19th-Century buildings, Northern California’s Petaluma provides the film’s nostalgic small-town setting. From the whiz-bang visual effects from Marin County’s Industrial Light and Magic to its Ronald Searle-ish fantasy creatures (created by Rob Bottin) and Jules Verne-like alien space ship (designed by the veteran Robert F. Boyle), “Explorers” has a handsome, admirably unified look of youthful whimsy. All of it iscaptured in cinematographer John Hora’s clear images and reinforced by Jerry Goldsmith’s doughty, noble score.

There’s careful, witty attention to detail--it’s not for nothing that the boys attend Charles M. Jones Junior High--a tip of the hat to famed animator Chuck Jones. One of the few adults on view is Dick Miller (as a helicopter cop), feisty alumnus of Roger Corman science fiction epics so nimbly spoofed by Dante (a Corman graduate himself) in a film-within-the-film called “Starkiller.” In a notable dual assignment Robert Picardo is both the blondined Starkiller and Wak, the lovable alien. Leslie Rickert is Neek, Wak’s sweet girlfriend.

For once a film’s PG rating has reverse meaning: “Explorers” is good for kids, but adults should definitely be accompanied by children. Considering the film’s stretches of computerese, you’d be wise to take along one of those 12-year-olds who can explain your digital wristwatch to you.