Those fluent in Jabberwock will recognize the phrase from Lewis Carroll's

Through the Looking-Glass

: "All mimsy were the borogoves."

But you don't need to speak Jabberwock to enjoy The Last Mimzy, an involving fantasy for beamish boys and girls - and their parents. At moments, Mimzy captures the moonbeam awe of E.T.

When scientists from the future send a box to the present, it is recovered by a school-age brother and sister from Washington state. At first they don't understand the significance of the assorted rocks, seashells, crystal card, and stuffed bunny rabbit. It emerges that these are the tools they can use to help save the planet from death by pollution.

Director Robert Shaye pays the film's target audience of older grade-schoolers an enormous compliment: He assumes they are intelligent enough to follow the story of how their close encounter with "toys" from the future boosts the intelligence of his hero and heroine, Noah and Emma.

Narrated like a fantasy, Mimzy begins sometime in the next century with a wheezing scientist struggling in his laboratory to save humankind. As in The Terminator, the scientist has one last hope: He sends envoys to our day, hoping one will be found and understood. To the untrained eye, i.e. Noah and Emma's mom, the emissaries look like the giveaways in the Happy Meal box.

Mom (Joely Richardson) suspects that wide-eyed Emma (Rhiannon Leigh Wryn), 6, is gifted. She and her husband (Timothy Hutton) hold no such hopes for Noah, who is 10 and academically undistinguished. (But honorable: Given the answers in advance to a science quiz, Noah answers on his own.)

At first brush with the educational toys, Emma demonstrates magical powers, and a newly inspired Noah is so focused on his science-fair project that he impresses his teacher, Larry White (Rainn Wilson, psycho-toady Dwight Schrute on The Office).

Those doodles of Noah's that annoy his teachers? Larry recognizes them as mandalas, maps of the cosmos.

That new toy bunny of Emma's? It's Mimzy. (Alice Liddell, who inspired Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, had one just like it.) Mimzy murmurs sweet somethings into Emma's ear, emboldening the girl to take some gravity- and dimension-defying risks.

The young actors are pitch-perfect. But Shaye, a movie mogul who has previously directed only one other film, is, at best, a workmanlike director. He fails to bathe his film with the light, and lightness, that would put it in the company of E.T. Mimzy is treated like a limp prop rather than a magical creature, which lowers the magic quotient. Then there is the distraction of the product placements, including a prominent one for a computer-component manufacturer, which is perhaps what's to be expected when the studio head is also the director.

This said, my 10-year-old chaperones, Cora and Maddie, are filing a formal appeal to my three-star rating of Mimzy. They'd rank it four.

The Last Mimzy *** (out of four stars)

Produced by Michael Phillips, directed by Robert Shaye, written by Bruce Joel Rubin and Toby Emmerich, based on Lewis Padgett's story "Mimsy Were the Borogoves," photography by J. Michael Muro, music by Howard Shore, distributed by New Line Cinema.

Running time: 1 hour, 30 mins.

Noah Wilder. . . Chris O'Neil

Emma Wilder. . . Rhiannon Leigh Wryn

Jo Wilder. . . Joely Richardson

David Wilder. . . Timothy Hutton

Larry White. . . Rainn Wilson

Parent's guide: PG (sci-fi fantasy with mild violence and suspense)

Playing at: area theaters


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com.