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"North," a playful modern fable about a boy in search of new parents, doesn't always work, but much of it is clever in amusingly unpredictable ways. Mr. Reiner's daring is a great comic asset, and it's very much in evidence here. So evident, in fact, that "North" has the scattershot energy of a Mel Brooks farce: before the audience can be sure whether one gambit really works, this film is on to the next one. It's hard to resist a comedy that's so full of surprises and so eager to please.
Based on a slender novel by the comedy writer Alan Zweibel, and written by Andrew Scheinman, "North" unfolds in a fast, jaunty style. A string of quick glimpses describe North's happy-looking life in the fourth grade while also revealing trouble in paradise.
North (Elijah Wood) looks like a big success, but his parents (Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Jason Alexander) don't understand him. Nor do they even notice him. North's father is much too interested in his career as an inspector of pants, which is the kind of notion Mr. Reiner knows just what to do with. All he needs to show is a quick glimpse of the pants factory, where North's father (one of many imaginative pants testers) tries out pink and blue evening pants by feigning ballroom dancing.
Another nice sight gag presents North on his way to the secret place where he goes when he wants to be alone. Through the woods, past a treehouse, North wanders the countryside until he winds up inside a furniture store at a shopping mall, where he can brood undisturbed in a nice big armchair. It's there that he meets Bruce Willis, an Easter Bunny full of advice and badly in need of a shave. Mr. Willis, lending the film a touch of hip insouciance, turns up in many guises throughout the film and makes a nicely laid-back guardian angel.
North decides to seek freedom from his family and roam the world in search of new parents. Naturally, he can't do this without a lawyer (Jon Lovitz, who shows up in school with his client and advises him not to answer a question about the inventor of the cotton gin). And he can't do it without generating public interest: telephone operators are seen fielding calls from prospective parents who want to know everything about North. "Don't even get him started on the Warren Commission," one operator advises.
Much of the film strings together North's geographical exploits, which take him to places including Texas (Dan Aykroyd, Reba McIntyre, shades of "Dallas" and "Bonanza"), Alaska (Kathy Bates and Graham Greene in an igloo with a garage-door opener) and Pennsylvania's Amish country (Kelly McGillis and Alexander Godunov, who give a reprise of their "Witness" roles and scare North with an offer to make him part of their solemn brood). Some of these moments are a lot less funny than others. The film's comic range goes all the way from tasteless jokes in Hawaii, where North's prospective parents want to use his bare rump on billboards, to a quick, side-splitting scene in Paris, where North sits with a beret-wearing couple watching Jerry Lewis on every television station.
Mr. Wood is currently the most natural, confident child actor of his generation, but he's not always an ideal straight man. Too many of the tall tales in "North" require him to sit still and just flinch in disbelief. However, he's very likable throughout, and Mr. Reiner has surrounded him with a good deal of comic relief. The film gets some extra energy from Alan Arkin, turning himself into Sid Caesar to play a wild-eyed judge, and Mr. Lovitz, sleazy as ever and better used than he was in "City Slickers II." Mr. Alexander and Ms. Louis-Dreyfus also have some funny moments, even if they spend much of the story installed in the Smithsonian, enjoying "the longest simultaneous coma in medical history."
"North" also has a subplot in which the hero's power-mad classmate, a venal pre-yuppie named Winchell (Mathew McCurley), schemes against him. Children may enjoy this character, but there's a lot for children to enjoy in "North" anyway. Aside from being the least original part of an otherwise inventive story, this conventional twist bogs down the film in other ways. There are enough large, venal yuppies on screen these days. We don't need small ones.