ONE of the most original movies in years, Forrest Gump is blessed with magic. But just try telling your friends what it is about. Most likely, they will inform you haughtily that it sounds just like Being There, Rain Man, The World According to Garp and/or Zelig. Specks of those earlier films can be found in the new movie, but Forrest Gump has its own heart, sometimes worn on its stylish sleeve. Based on a novel by Winston Groom, Forrest Gump tells of a sweet-natured, slow-witted man (beautifully played by Tom Hanks) whose gift for running, combined with pure luck, turns him into a football star, a Vietnam war hero, a captain of the shrimp industry and, finally, the most devoted partner a woman could want. Forrest's story is also America's story. The magnificent waif matures as the country matures, and his life touches Vietnam, racial integration, political assassinations, the chaos of the '60s and a tragic, unspecified virus that obviously represents AIDS. Forrest Gump's magical list of assets includes the splendid Hanks' performance, stunning visual effects and, above all, compassionate direction by Robert Zemeckis. For once, the technically talented Zemeckis (Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit) has made a film with an emotional passion equal to its hi-tech prowess. It is, essentially, a movie in which people behave lovingly to one another, yet it gracefully glides away from sappiness. But the film slyly reveals a wry sense of humour. The movie's most talked-about scenes (at least before its release) superimpose Hanks into newsreel footage of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon as well as John Lennon. Only occasionally seeming like a gimmick, these moments work more believably and with more subtle sophistication than the similar scenes that nearly overwhelmed Woody Allen's Zelig. But you will not leave the theatre focused on those techniques; what comes through is a mood of benevolence, an unusual (and welcome) twist for a special effects-laden film. Director Zemeckis deftly handles a variety of treacherous scenes. After the Oliver Stone onslaught of Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, any movie visiting Vietnam automatically risks deja vu, but Zemeckis provides a startling intimacy that lets us see things entirely from Forrest's limited viewpoint. A segment in which Forrest and his lifelong love Jenny, played by Robin Wright, are reunited at a giant peace rally succeeds in winking at the audience, as if giving us the freedom to enjoy the moment's extravagant emotionalism. The irritations are minor. At 142 minutes, the film is too long, but no two people could agree on what to cut. Forrest Gump is that rarity, a film that is as stirring to remember as it is to see for the first time.