Stuart Little (1999)

D: Rob Minkoff
S: Geena Davis, Hugh Laurie

Entertaining children's film adapted from the venerable novel by E.B. White. When couple Geena Davis and Hugh Laurie adopt a talking mouse as a second son, a drama of domestic integration and social acceptance ensues, teaching moral lessons about how to treat others and the meaning of being part of a family, no matter how unusual. And unusual it is. There is something faintly creepy about the idea of the anthropomorphic rodent dressed in tiny outfits with bow ties, and something slightly amiss in the early stages when the tension between fantasy and reality results in elder son Jonathan Lipnicki (Jerry Maguire) reacting badly to the new arrival. But this kind of fantastical displacement is not uncommon to the genre, though it usually reads better than it plays in a live action film. The film does benefit terrifically from absolutely stunning special effects though, which make the mouse almost too realistic for comfort. Stuart is a brilliantly realised combination of animatronic and computer generated imagery, down to the way his hair bristles in the wind and his eyes reflect the light. The voice provided by Michael J. Fox is also appealing, and it is complemented by a number of equally entertaining vocal performances from Nathan Lane (who worked with director Rob Minkoff on The Lion King), Chazz Palminteri (Analyze This), and Steve Zhan (Out of Sight) as a trio of cats who object to the mouse's status within the family household for various reasons. The film is on safer ground with this age-old conflict between species, and the climax turns on a confrontation in central park which has little to do with the human cast but reinforces the moral and thematic concern with tolerance and friendship.

The film is more of a lecture than is good for it at times. Though screenwriters Greg Brooker and M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense) have constructed a relatively serviceable script from the original novel, it is clearly concerned with driving home the central themes from beginning to end. This is no harm in and of itself, but one sometimes wishes that the story could stand on its own without the necessity to restate and restate what it is all about on a deeper level. There are some great adventure scenes though, including an exciting boat race and the scene in Central Park which employs many of the conventions of horror/suspense movies to evoke the mouse's sense of dread as he is stalked by the cats. Minkoff keeps the pace and tone lively despite the occasional sermonising, and even plays with the audience throughout the early stages as he keeps us on the edge of shouting, as Lipnicki eventually does "Are you all nuts?... He's not my brother, he's a mouse!"

In its favour, the film is never as sentimental as the more excessive type of children's film can be (there is a touch of tongue-in-cheek to every scene where sentiment threatens, such as when Davis weeps over a tiny sweater after Stuart has left home). It touches on some relatively adult questions about adoption and difference and doesn't condescend to the extent that it becomes annoying. There are some savvy gags and nice performances from both the live action and vocal only cast (Bruno Kirby is amusing as a corpulent mouse claiming to be Stuart's real father), and it never gets boring. The film should provide great entertainment for kids and shouldn't prove too much of a trial for adults (except those phobic about rodents or particularly fond of cats). There are certainly worse films out there, though there are better ones too (isn't that always the case?), and casual viewers with enough interest in the subject can marvel at the special effects if they do nothing else. Stuart Little is good 'fun for all the family' fare which has the beneift of good craftsmanship and a solid moral fable at its heart.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.