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Film review: Little Buddha

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"Little Buddha" wants desperately to be commercially accessible, as it intertwines the ancient tale of Buddha with a modern-day story about a young Seattle boy who is thought by Buddhist monks to be the reincarnation of one of their teachers.

An ambitious, flamboyant film, fraught with built-in problems, "Little Buddha" is a literal interpretation of both stories by director Bernardo Bertolucci ("The Last Emperor").

A Buddhist monk from Tibet travels to Seattle and after some gentle and sincere prodding, manages to convince the boy's parents to allow the lad to be considered as a "candidate." In other words, whether he is actually the reincarnated teacher has to be determined by spiritual means. Later, a couple of other "candidates" are discovered in Nepal and ultimately all three get together as they are "examined."

Meanwhile, the story of Buddha comes into play as the boy begins reading a book about Buddha's life, which is shown in a sort of flashback-fantasy motif, with special effects and razzle-dazzle interpretations, as when a giant cobra shields young Buddha from the rain as he meditates, and later, when he must confront his inner self.

Cynics may turn away, but I found the ideas and their execution quite fascinating. Until the effect was undermined by an offbeat bit of casting.

Despite the authentic ethnicity of most of the actors here, Bertolucci has, for some inexplicable reason, chosen to cast as Buddha none other than "Bill & Ted's" Keanu Reeves, who is stiff, aloof and affects a halting, Peter Sellers-style East Indian accent. It's a misguided choice and gives what is already a kind of new age concept an even more contemporary twist.

Perhaps Bertolucci should have listened to the advice of one of the monks in his story: "If you tighten the string too much, it will slip. If you leave it too slack, it won't play."

Still, "Little Buddha" is definitely worth a look.

It is rated PG for some fleeting male nudity.