June 16, 1997 12:00 PM

Rene Russo, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Cumming, Irma P. Hall

Been a while since you saw Born Free, the 1966 family classic about a woman raising a lion cub in Africa? Well, Buddy is Born Free for a new generation, but this time the nature-versus-nurture debate is over a gorilla. The movie is sweet and often funny, and children will probably like it a great deal.

Buddy, like Born Free, is based on a true story. Back in the 1920s, Gertrude Lintz (Russo), a New York City socialite, began raising chimps on her Brooklyn estate as if they were her own kids. She dressed them in custom-made outfits, took them to the movies, put them on roller skates and tucked them into comfy beds at night. Soon she adopted an ailing baby gorilla, naming him Buddy. With his warm, sensitive nature, the tiny primate quickly became her favorite. But Buddy packs on 100 pounds a year and, before you can say, “You’re too heavy for Mama to carry,” his love pats and squeezes turn potentially lethal. What’s a mother to do?

Obviously made with loving care by director-screenwriter Caroline Thompson (Black Beauty), the movie features enough animal high jinks to keep kids laughing (the chimps are real; Buddy is played by an actor in a gorilla suit whose face and eyes are animatronically controlled). But adults will likely find Buddy lacking spark. Russo plays Lintz as a benevolent, one-dimensional earth mother. Viewers may end up agreeing with her beleaguered cook (Hall), who, told by Russo to premasticate Buddy’s breakfast-time banana, declares, “I got enough to do without chewing up food for monkeys.” (PG)

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