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'ROCKETMAN' BLASTS ITS WAY INTO HEARTS YOUNG AND OLD

QUESTIONS about space travel every kid wants to know:

How do astronauts go to the bathroom?

How do they eat that gross food? What if they had tubes of -- yecch -- creamed liver? Or gefilte fish?

What happens if -- tee-hee -- someone in a spacesuit, uh, eats too many beans?

All those questions, and many more, are answered in "RocketMan." Kids will adore it. (At the preview, tykes all through the theater laughed throughout, bleating contentedly like little goats.)

Our Rocket Man is a nerd named Fred Z. Randall (Harland Williams). Though technically an adult, he's really an overgrown child. He has never lived anywhere but home; his mom bakes cookies for him shaped like rockets. Since he was small and whirled himself around in the washing machine, pretending he was in a spaceship, Fred has been in love with the wild black yonder.

To his astonishment, the 30-year-old Fred winds up being sent into space. One minute, he has a desk job, designing spaceship software. (Because he treats the NASA computer like a giant video game, the job isn't that sedentary.) Next thing you know, through a twist of fate, he gets to go to Mars.

At first, the sight of the NASA pros -- his heroes -- reduces him to jelly. Buffalo alert! Starring as fearless astronaut "Wild Bill" Overbeck is Buffalonian William Sadler. And another NASA official, Chief Flight Director Paul Wick, is another Buffalonian, Jeffrey DeMunn.

Within minutes, though, Fred gets over his shyness. Kids will love him because he's the ultimate wild kid. Nothing fazes him. Testing his tendency toward motion sickness, NASA puts him on a ride to see how much stress he can take. Fred gets whirled around and around, at increasingly high speeds, as the officials at the controls blanch. "Not 5!" one gasps, as the dial is turned up. Then, "Not 6!" and "Oh, no, not all the way up to 7!" "Don't . . . don't try 8!"

They're afraid he's going to die. But he doesn't. Spinning faster and faster, he grins with delight. He makes faces. He would have been fine, if a bolt on the ride hadn't started to loosen . . .

I don't want to give away what happens after that. But I was laughing so hard there were tears in my eyes.

It seemed to me that Harland Williams takes some cues from the great Pee-wee Herman. (At times I wasn't sure why they hadn't asked Mr. Herman to take the part. Could that silly episode in the porn theater actually have scotched his whole career?) Harland has similar madcap quirkiness, the same uncontrollability, close to the same goofy laugh. He has committed the same blunder of not having put aside childish things. Even his face, thin-lipped, wide-eyed and pale, resembles Pee-wee's.

Now and then the movie gets bogged down by computer sequences. Hollywood will never get it through its collective head that footage of blinking computer graphics is far from fascinating. In general, though, "RocketMan" lives up to its name. It keeps moving.

When the team -- Fred, "Wild Bill," a pretty astronaut named Julie (Jessica Lundy) and a chimp named Ulysses -- is rocketing toward Mars, the movie really gets down to business. These sequences won the kids' little hearts, as bodily functions are explored and exploited.

Fred gets sucked headfirst into the space toilet, staining half his face blue. (Speaking by satellite, the president of the United States asks gravely, "Mr. Randall, the people of the world want to know why you resemble a Smurf.")

Bungling his cooking duty, he feeds the crew tubes of laxatives, toothpaste and hemorrhoid cream.

Best of all, as they're walking around on Mars, an unfortunate digestive episode (complete with sound effects) causes Fred's spacesuit to blow up like a beach ball. "Eeeuw!" fumes a revolted "Wild Bill." The kids in the theater echoed him, joyfully.

After a while you forget you're in space and not on the Howard Stern show. But there are sweeter moments, too. It's funny to watch the chimp regarding Fred as some kind of cretin.

There's no obscenity, no nastiness in "RocketMan." For the little ones, it's all good unclean fun. And outside the theater, a group of parents were heard exulting that it had been fun for them, too. Who knows? We might be on the same planet after all -- even if it's not the right one.

MOVIE
RocketMan
Rating: *** 1/2
Wild, childish Disney comedy about a nerd whom NASA sends to Mars. With Harland Williams and William Sadler. Rated PG, opening today in area theaters.

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