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New movies are for the birds (and horses, lions and bears)
September 2005
By Greg Morago

Moviegoers have always had a special place in their hearts for animals. Dogs and ponies, in particular, made for touching story lines. Everyone remembers Lassie and Old Yeller, Pie from ``National Velvet'' and the majestic Arabian from ``The Black Stallion.''

But it's not just four-legged friends (``Babe,'' ``Black Beauty,'' ``Stuart Little'' and ``Benji'' notwithstanding) who have gotten their share of screen time, whether in comedy, drama, documentary or animation. A veritable zoo of creatures, including chickens (``Chicken Run''), whales (``Free Willy''), sharks (the ``Jaws'' franchise) and adorable fish (``Finding Nemo'') as well as backyard insects (``A Bug's Life,'' ``Antz'' and ``Microcosmos'') have enjoyed star turns at the cineplex.

In recent years, the animal world seems to have matured on the big screen. ``Winged Migration,'' a film about the migratory patterns of birds, was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary in 2003. ``The Story of the Weeping Camel'' competed for best documentary at this year's Academy Awards. And now comes ``March of the Penguins,'' a documentary about the annual mating ritual of emperor penguins that is the current darling of the animal-movie world, taking in $40 million in about two months (while playing on far fewer screens than the big-budget movies).

Here are some more beasts -- great and small, precious and terrifying, real and make-believe -- showing up at the cineplex now and in months to come:

-- ``Valiant'': ``The Little Train That Could,'' but with wings. This animated film stars a pigeon named Valiant (voiced by Ewan McGregor) who overcomes his small size as a brave homing pigeon in service of Britain during World War II.

-- ``Duma'': In very limited release, this drama concerns a young boy named Xan who has raised a cheetah named Duma since it was a cub on a farm in South Africa. When Xan's family moves to the city, he realizes he must return Duma to its natural habitat. Without asking his parents, the boy sets out alone with his orphaned cheetah to the Kalahari Desert.

-- ``Grizzly Man'': Also in limited release is Werner Herzog's devastating documentary on self-styled wildlife expert Timothy Treadwell. Herzog uses Treadwell's own footage of his summers living close to grizzly bears in Alaska's Katmai National Park. Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amy Huguenard, were killed -- mauled and eaten -- by grizzlies in October 2003.

-- ``Dreamer'': Didn't get enough Dakota Fanning this summer? Come fall, you can catch her as the daughter of a horse trainer (Kurt Russell) who rescues and nurses an injured racehorse back to championship potential. Inspired by a true story, this is a feel-good flick for those who like sweet little girls and noble horses.

-- ``Chicken Little'': Another animated comedy, this time about a bird with a hyperactive imagination that lands it in hot water. Zach Braff, Amy Sedaris, Joan Cusack and Don Knotts lend their voices to the film, set in a camp with evil counselors.

-- ``Goose!'': Can't get enough talking pets? For the holiday season, check out this live-action comedy about a young boy who makes friends with a talking goose that's destined to be Christmas dinner.

-- ``The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe'': Four kids travel through a wardrobe closet to the land of Narnia, where they learn their destiny from a lion messiah. This live-action holiday-season film (from the novel by C.S. Lewis) is directed by Andrew Adamson (``Shrek'') and stars Tilda Swinton and Rupert Everett.

-- ``King Kong'': The best (and loudest) of this summer's trailers was the heart-pumping peek at Peter ``Lord of the Rings'' Jackson's remake of the classic giant-gorilla story. From Skull Island to Manhattan, Kong stands tall. Naomi Watts, Jack Black and Adrien Brody also star in this highly anticipated winter release.

-- ``Barnyard'': Kevin James, Courteney Cox and Danny Glover voice this barnyard hootenanny about pets who stray while the farmer's away. The animated comedy features singing, dancing and joking creatures galore for winter viewing.

-- ``Flicka'': Many months before its release early next year, this drama made news when two horses died in separate incidents while filming. The American Humane Association has determined that both deaths were unpreventable accidents. Still, they cast a shadow over filming the story of a young girl who claims a wild horse in an effort to prove to her father she can run the family ranch.

Added: "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill" out of DVD soon -- Excellent

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