Times Arts Editor

Watching the new film "Explorers" the other night, I found myself wondering when and why the annual Soapbox Derby in Akron, Ohio, faded from the scene.

Thousands of youngsters across the country put wheels on orange crates (more often than soapboxes, I think), added tin cans for headlights in the crudest versions, and dreamed of freewheeling downhill to glory and a few seconds of center stage in the newsreels.

The derby was sponsored by Chevrolet and I have no doubt it pointed generations of youngsters toward the unequaled thrill of traveling fast in a four-wheeled vehicle. Especially four-wheeled vehicles with engines, which went fast uphill too--not, like the gravity-powered soapbox racers, downhill only.

"Explorers," one of those films that seems to divide reviewers between love and contemptuous rejection, with no straddles, played for me like an updating of the innocent dreams of that earlier time.

The three young protagonists of "Explorers" know about computers and space flight, and they improvise not a downhill racer but a space capsule, using a trash can and other scavenged parts. It is just that in the movies fantasies come true, and this spaceship flies. What links it to the soapbox racers is that it is the stuff of dreams and it is very hard to steer.

Those who dislike "Explorers" find it derivative (off to see the aliens again, eh?), erratically paced, uncertainly told and too expensive. Because of its elaborate and pyrotechnical special effects, mostly by George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic, it is reported to have cost more than $25 million.

The film is not innocent of all these complaints, especially that its forward motion is intermittent and that it doesn't always pay off the plot points it seems to be making. (It spends a lot of time setting up some childish bullies, for example, then gives them only a glancing comeuppance you could miss if you drop your popcorn.)

The script by Eric Luke creates a nice item of satire: the teen-age aliens have been sitting up there like earthbound teen-agers, watching endless hours of American television, whose jingles and catch phrases they can chant like magical incantations. A razzle-dazzle light show, resembling a whole video arcade on "tilt," accompanies this set piece, which no one seems to have known how to end with a bang. It just stops.

But with all its hesitations, and an end sequence that is slow and has little to do with what's gone before, "Explorers" does have a real innocence--defined as a freedom from evil--that is refreshing. There is nothing, as there was in director Joe Dante's previous effort, "Gremlins," to frighten and shock the bejabbers out of the small fry.

The adults are unthreatening and sympathetic, even if some are a bit addled. A cop who might be a spoilsport turns out to have held on to his own childhood dreams of UFOs bearing friendly aliens, and he is on the boys' side, wishing them well (a pleasing creative touch).

Like "WarGames," "Explorers" argues that young people are smart, inventive and brave, not vacant-eyed layabouts. The film says that they are idealistic dreamers, continuing a tradition of great-grandparents who read Jules Verne by the light of oil lamps.

The three boys, Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix and Jason Presson, are attractive, and rarely present themselves as actors acting.

"Explorers," the softest PG since custard, is obviously aimed at a very young audience, although its television sequence will get more knowing laughs from the elders who show up.

I wish that "Explorers" played less like a rough cut awaiting a final polish, but, like my colleague Kevin Thomas who reviewed the film enthusiastically (with reservations), I had a good time with it, and I welcome a film that is more apt to produce dreams than nightmares in the kids who see it.

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