[Screen It]

(1999) (Geena Davis, Jonathan Lipnicki) (PG)

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Childrenís Drama: After being adopted by a full-sized human family, a small, talking mouse tries to fit in with his new parents, brother and a series of cats who want to make trouble for him.
Mr. and Mrs. Little (HUGH LAURIE & GEENA DAVIS) are a loving, New York City couple whoíve always wanted another brother for their young son, George (JONATHAN LIPNICKI). Thus, they head off to an orphanage and much to their surprise, find that theyíre most taken with Stuart (voice of MICHAEL J. FOX), a small, talking mouse.

Unfortunately, George isnít pleased when he discovers that the new brother his parents brought home is a rodent, but the Littles do what they can to make sure that Stuart is as comfortable as possible. Of course, that means making sure that the pet cat, Snowbell (voice of NATHAN LANE), doesnít eat the newest family member.

While Snowbell tries to keep Stuartís presence a secret from his moocher buddy, Monty (voice of STEVE ZAHN), the mouse and George soon become friends and the little fellow meets his extended family including Uncle Crenshaw (JEFFERY JONES), Grandma Estelle (ESTELLE GETTY) and Cousin Edgar (BRIAN DOYLE-MURRAY).

Despite that, the Littles realize that Stuartís missing something in his life and thus return to the orphanage where they ask Mrs. Keeper (JULIA SWEENEY) about Stuartís real family. Not long after that, Mr. and Mrs. Stout (voices of BRUNO KIRBY & JENNIFER TILLY) show up, claiming to be Stuartís parents and they return him to their summer home overlooking the fairway of a miniature golf course.

With a discovery about the Stouts sending Stuart back across town and through Central Perk, he must contend with Monty and some hired alley cats, Smokey (voice of CHAZZ PALMINTERI), Lucky (voice of JIM DOUGHAN) and Red (voice of DAVID ALAN GRIER) as the Littles send out their own search parties to bring him home.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
In the world of nature, some animals get the breaks, while others donít. For instance, take the Rodentia order. Half of the group - the squirrels and the beavers - are considered to be cute and cuddly creatures that people love to watch. The other half, however -- the one comprised of rats and mice - are usually not looked upon with such high regard.

The same holds true for their treatment in movies. While the leads in the animated "Rescuers" films and those singing mice in the "Babe" films have been adored by children, the rodent-related characters that most often come to mind are the less savory ones in "Willard" and "Ben." Then thereís the stereotypical cinematic reaction of housewives shrieking and grabbing the broom or jumping onto a kitchen chair upon seeing one of the little critters. If ever a group of creatures needed a public relations makeover, rats and mice should be at or near the front of the line.

Of course, the mouse in "Mouse Hunt" was appropriately cute and Mr. Jingles appearance in the recently released "The Green Mile" should help matters as he stole nearly every scene in which he appeared. Yet, both were only supporting characters and voiceless ones at that. Thus, who better to arrive and give the maligned rodents - or at least just the mice - a good PR boost than Stuart Little?

Based on the beloved childrenís book by E.B. White (who also wrote "Charlotteís Web") that many a child has grown up with over the last half century and more, the big screen version is a charming and mostly delightful little piece of fluff that should keep kids entertained and parents relieved to find a decent family film the whole family can truly attend.

Talking animals are clearly not a novel thing in Hollywood. From "Mr. Ed" and "Francis the Talking Mule" to "Lancelot Link," "Dr. Dolittle" and the recent "Babe" films, such pictures prove that audiences enjoy watching familiar animals getting vocal. Thatís essentially the gimmick in this film, that a little mouse can talk to humans and other animals can talk to each other (why the cats canít talk to humans isnít explained, but effortlessly becomes a recognized rule of this fairy tale universe).

To make that work to the best extent possible, two things need to come to fruition. For one, to go beyond being just a novelty act, the animals have to look like theyíre actually talking instead of chewing on peanut butter or some other gummy substance that kept Mr. Ed and Lancelot Link moving their lips as if appearing in a poorly dubbed, foreign martial arts flick.

Here, the effect is quite good. Building on what was pioneered in the "Babe" films as well as work perfected in "Jurassic Park," technical gurus John Dykstra (senior visual effects supervisor), Henry Anderson (animation supervisor) and Jerome Chen (visual effects supervisor) mix live animals featuring superimposed CGI mouths with completely animated creatures.

The former, used entirely on several cats in the production, works very well and with their already expressive faces (especially Snowbell - a Persian), creates a fun effect. The latter, used to create Stuart and the Stouts, is far more impressive. The little mice look real, cast shadows and generally fit in with their surrounding in a believable fashion.

The second important element in any talking animal story is the voice behind the characters, and the filmmakers here couldnít have asked for a better vocal cast. Michael J. Fox (the "Back to the Future films," TVís "Spin City") hits just the right notes and sound for Stuart, bringing a great deal of personality to his character that supplements the wonderful visuals.

The true scene-stealer, however, is Nathan Lane (who previously appeared in the rodent movie "Mousehunt" and also did vocal work in "The Lion King") as Snowbell, the sardonic family cat who canít believe his luck when the family adopts a mouse as one of his new owners. Reaping the benefits of some great one-liners from screenwriters M. Night Shyamalan ("The Sixth Sense," "Wide Awake") and Greg Brooker (his first produced screenplay), Lane provides for most of the filmís often quite hilarious humor.

Steve Zahn ("Happy, Texas"), Chazz Palminteri ("Bullets Over Broadway"), Bruno Kirby ("City Slickers") and Jennifer Tilly ("Bullets Over Broadway") are all also decent in their vocalizations. Meanwhile, Geena Davis ("Thelma and Louise"), Hugh Laurie ("Sense and Sensibility") are good in their warm and fuzzy, but ultimately two-dimensional characters as is Jonathan Lipnicki whose having to play second fiddle to a character even cuter than himself means he doesnít steal the limelight as he did in "Jerry Maguire."

As in many kid-based stories and films, the overall story isnít anything spectacular, but director Rob Minkoff (one of the co-directors of "The Lion King") manages to keep things moving along at a fairly entertaining clip. While adults may begin to tire somewhat of the proceedings toward the end - especially since the funny one-liners all but disappear during that time - younger kids will probably enjoy the entire film from start to finish.

Just as fluffy as Snowbellís Persian coat but thankfully not mawkish enough to warrant gagging up a hairball, the film is a mostly delightful and entertaining little picture that families as a whole can enjoy. While perhaps not as emotionally involving or satisfying as it could have been, "Stuart Little" benefits from some great technical and vocal work as well as simply being just so gosh darn cute. We give the film a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed December 9, 1999 / Posted December 17, 1999

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