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'The Last Mimzy' will open young eyes, and minds

Timothy Hutton and Rhiannon Leigh Wryn play father and daughter in this science-fiction film about an interstellar care package found by children. (Shane Harvey/New Line Cinema)

It's generally not a good sign when a studio executive decides to direct a movie, and even more worrisome when his last time behind a camera was 17 years ago. Who knows why Bob Shaye , the head of New Line Cinema , decided now would be the time to make a film out of the 1943 science-fiction story "Mimsy Were the Borogoves ," by Lewis Padgett (a pen name for the married SF writers Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore )?

The results, titled "The Last Mimzy ," are too awkward for serious-minded adults and teenagers, and much too complicated for small children. For smart kids between the ages of 8 and 12, though, the movie hits the sweet spot with a satisfying cosmic bang. It's a cross between "A Wrinkle in Time " and a middle-school version of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind ," and while "Mimzy" doesn't carry the "Twilight Zone" chill of the original story, it still has the power to pry open young minds.

As does the strange interstellar care package the two Wilder children find on the beach one day. Noah (Chris O'Neil ) is the bespectacled 'tweener, Emma (Rhiannon Leigh Wryn ) his moon-faced kid sister, and they intuitively know to hide their discovery from their parents (Joely Richardson and Timothy Hutton ). Since the mysterious box contains rocks that Emma is able to levitate into a small whirlwind, that's just as well.

There's also a cute toy rabbit named Mimzy that -- shades of Teddy in "AI: Artificial Intelligence " -- apparently has a supercomputer for innards. Whatever it whispers into Emma's ear has the effect of advancing her brain power in great evolutionary leaps. This terrifies the baby sitter and, to be honest, freaks her brother out a little. By this point, though, Noah's talking to spiders and getting them to build teeny-weeny suspension bridges.

What's the message Mimzy's trying to impart? How does Noah knock out the lights of Seattle? Why is the local director of Homeland Security (Michael Clarke Duncan ) running around with his knickers in a twist? And why are all the adults in the movie complacent dullards?

Because, I think, their own brains have stopped growing. "The Last Mimzy" is an empowerment fable for older kids and its message is: Never stop learning, or questioning, or pushing past the boundaries of what the grown-ups say is possible. At first it seems like Noah will be the hero of the piece, but then dreamy Emma comes to the fore, and by the end both siblings are equally critical to fixing what needs to be fixed. I don't want to say what that is, but, trust me, it's big.

Rainn Wilson of "The Office " and "Six Feet Under " plays the hippie science teacher who connects Noah's classroom doodles to the 14th-century Tibetan mandalas they replicate. He and his girl-friend (Kathryn Hahn ) are used to both present the case for New Age open-mindedness and to show its vapid limitations; by the final scenes they're standing on the sidelines like slack - jawed extras at the end of "Close Encounters."

Plot holes? "The Last Mimzy" has them by the pound. It also includes a few egregious bits of product placement, one of which is used as a joke that doesn't quite come off. You can't really argue that this is a well-made movie, but it is a good one -- true to the emotional reality of its young characters and young audience and flattering the latter into thinking way outside the box. There are worse things to teach than intellectual ambition.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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