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"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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The cartoon is careening toward a comeback

When the lights go down at the beginning of "Gremlins 2: The New Batch," the first sights and sounds are unmistakable: We're looking at a Looney Tunes cartoon, starring Bugs Bunny. But then a controversy breaks out, as Daffy Duck charges into the cartoon and demands equal billing after decades of playing second fiddle to the Wascally Wabbit.

Eventually Daffy says the heck with it--if he can't star in the cartoon, then let the feature begin. And it does. But the movie's fake-cartoon opening left me with a desire for more. I wished there had been a standard-length cartoon before "Gremlins II," just as there always used to be at the movies. The good news is, the summer of 1991 may see a return of that old tradition.

Touchstone has made a new Roger Rabbit and Baby Huey cartoon, "Roller Coaster Rabbit," to play before "Dick Tracy." The cartoon was inspired by the popularity of the Roger Rabbit cartoon that preceeded last summer's Touchstone release, "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids." Not incidentially, Touchstone home video executives believe the inclusion of the cartoon on VHS and laserdisk copies of "Honey..." helped boost the movie's healthy homevid sales.

The AMC national movie chain is going even further, however, and plans to show a cartoon before all of the feature attractions on all 1,300 of its screens. The experiment will last a year, a chain spokesman said.

This can only be a good thing for the movies. The cartoon is an important part of that mysterious process by which a group of strangers become an audience, and settles down to have a film experience together. And the best cartoons exhibit an irreverant, wiseguy, satirical point of view that a lot of today's "high concept" features could benefit from.

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