By Ralph Novak
September 11, 1989 12:00 PM

Gavin Magrath, Sarah Polley

Capturing just the right tone of elephantine dignity mixed with a happy-spirited, haphazard heroism, this 80-minute animated film does right by Babar. The 58-year-old pachyderm, the protagonist of about 40 children’s books since he was invented by a Parisian couple, Cecile and Jean de Brunhoff, to entertain their two young sons, needed a not-too-sensationalizing touch in his first movie. And he got it from Nelvana Limited, the Canadian animation outfit responsible for various incarnations of such creatures as the Care Bears, the Get Along Gang and Ewoks.

The animation, colors and music all display a calm sense of restraint that doesn’t cut into the fun. The characters and approach are familiar. Even that durable enemy, Rataxes the Rhino, is on hand.

This is a new story—not one of those published by Jean de Brunhoff or his son Laurent. The grown-up Babar narrates, telling his own four elephantlettes the flashback story of his first battle as King of the Elephants, when he was a youngster himself. Newcomer Magrath provides the young Babar’s effectively naive voice and Polley (TV’s Ramona) is his then girlfriend (who becomes his wife), Celeste. Seven people are credited with the story and screenplay, but the plot comes out clear enough in the end.

There’s a fair supply of gentle wit. When Zephir the Monkey makes a quick dash to elude a hungry crocodile, the croc says admiringly, “That’s what I call fast food.” Babar, during a series of near misses at the rhinos’ headquarters and in breaking their siege of Elephantland (“surrender or be squashed,” Rataxes demands), calls in favors owed to him by Zephir and the crocodile. Teamwork, often a big theme in the Nelvana productions, wins another one.

Dumbo probably needn’t start packing his trunk yet. But he’s no longer the only pachyderm with a high-flying movie career. And all those little fans of the Brunhoff books—we’re talking crossover here, Babar—are the richer for it. (G)