MOVIE REVIEW : Touching, Cautionary 'Tom Thumb' a Tale for Big People

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Once upon a time, in Dave Borthwick's dazzling "The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb," a poor couple (Nick Upton, Deborah Collard) living in a single drab room off a dark alley are overjoyed when the wife gives birth to a baby boy so tiny he can be held in his father's hand. The couple's happiness, however, is short-lived, for two sinister men, possibly government agents, snatch the tiny being, named Tom Thumb by his father, and take him to a laboratory, where the most bizarre experiments in mutation are taking place.

A masterwork of dark imagination two years in the making, the 61-minute, near-wordless English production combines live action and animation in such a way that the humans move jerkily like figures in the early "flickers" while its tiny people, creations of latex and foam over replicas of the human skeletons, move easily and seem completely alive. Tom Thumb, as he grows (a little) could indeed be E. T.'s brother and is just as endearing.

What Borthwick seems to have in mind is an allegory on the evil, corrupt human race, which has despoiled the planet to the extent that the insect kingdom is taking over the rule of the universe.

For all the bleakness of its concerns, it has a take-your-breath-away beauty and is a touching, though cautionary, work of consistently stunning imagination. Although all of a piece and truly original, the film echoes many others.

Its design and fatalistic vision suggests the influence of German Expressionism, Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" in particular, and Tom's new pal, Jack the Giant Killer, a sworn enemy of wicked "big people," wears a medieval uniform much like that of the title figure in "The Golem." The lab, which Tom and Jack vow to destroy, is an ultra-realistic metallic maze. Too intense for small children, "The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb" is an unexpected pleasure for sophisticated adults.

It has been aptly paired with Peter Capaldi's 24-minute "Franz Kafka's 'It's a Wonderful Life,' " which Capaldi has said was inspired by his slip of the tongue; however, Frank Capra and Franz Kafka have more in common than perhaps even Capaldi realizes.

Anyway, it's Christmas Eve and Kafka (Richard E. Grant) is working away in his garret experiencing a fearsome case of writer's block over the beginning sentence of his "Metamorphosis." His quandary is exacerbated by the sounds of Yuletide revelry and various interruptions. The way in which Capaldi resolves Kafka's crisis is clever and amusing.

* MPAA rating: Unrated. Times guidelines: Malevolent atmosphere, grotesque images and some violence makes "The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb" too intense for small children; "Franz Kafka's 'It's a Wonderful Life"' is suitable for children.

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'The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb' Nick Upton: Pa Deborah Collard: Ma John Schofield: Murderous drunk A Tara Releasing/Manga Entertainment and bolexbrothers presentation. Conceived, written, directed and edited by Dave Borthwick. Producers Richard (Hutch) Hutchinson. Executive producer Colin Rose. Key animators Borthwick. Frank Passingham, Lee Wilton. Painted backgrounds Tim Farrington, Bill Thurston. Set drawings Mark Brierly. Sound designer Andy Kennedy. Model costumes Jane Adams. "Tom Thumb" theme John Paul Jones. Music and theme variations The Startled Insects. Running time: 1 hour, 1 minute.

'Franz Kafka's "It's a Wonderful Life" ' Richard E. Grant: Franz Kafka Crispin Letts: Gregor Samsa Ken Stott: Woland Elaine Collins: Miss Cicely Phyllis Logan: Frau Bunofski A Tara Releasing/Manga Entertainment presentation of a Scottish Film Production Fund/BBC Scotland production. Writer-director Peter Capaldi. Producer Ruth Kenley-Letts. Cinematographer Simon Maggs. Editor Nikki Clemens. Costumes Hazel Pethig. Music Philip Appleby. Production designer John Beard. Running time: 24 minutes.

* In limited release, for one week only, at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles , (310) 478-6379.

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