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Stuart Little

Review by Joe Barlow
Posted 31 December 1999

Directed by Rob Minkoff

Starring Geena Davis, 
Hugh Laurie, Jonathan Lipnicki, 
and the voices of Michael J. Fox, 
Nathan Lane, Chazz Palminteri, 
and Steve Zahn

Written by Gregory J. Brooker 
and
M. Night Shyamalan,
based on the book by E.B. White

I'll admit this upfront: I didn't expect to like Stuart Little. It's been fifteen years since I last read E.B. White's novel, upon which Rob Minkoff's new film is based, and the book made no great impression on me even as a child. And even if I'd adored the story in my youth, wasn't I too old to enjoy it now? A movie about a plucky little mouse who dreams of finding love and acceptance didn't exactly sound like an ideal night at the cinema to me.

Nor was I much impressed with the trailer. The growing trend towards replacing actors with computer-generated stand-ins is one I find a little alarming--the ghost of Jar Jar Binks still looms large in my memory--and the previews, which feature an inarguably CGI Stuart prancing around the screen, left me cold. So when the lights in the theater went down, I took a deep breath and braced myself for the worst.

I felt the first stirrings of hope during the opening credits, when the name 'M. Night Shyamalan' appeared as the screenplay's co-writer. Shyamalan, the writer/director of this year's brilliant psychological thriller, The Sixth Sense, is someone whose work I respect immensely, and I relaxed a little. If anyone could save the film, I was sure Shyamalan could.

Stuart Little takes place in a world very much like our own, with two substantial differences: (a) all animals possess the gift of speech; and (b) animals and humans are generally considered equals (it's not uncommon to see a family of mice hailing a taxi cab, for example). Because of this sense of equality, Mr. and Mrs. Little (Geena Davis and Hugh Laurie) don't find it odd when they encounter a polite, talkative mouse named Stuart  (voiced by Michael J. Fox)  in an orphanage. The Little family has so much love in their household that they wish to adopt a child to serve as brother and playmate to their son George (a very good performance by young Jonathan Lipnicki). Although they had planned to adopt a human child, Mr. and Mrs. Little are so charmed by Stuart that they pack him up and take him home.

Upon arriving at the Little household, Stuart is promptly eaten by the family cat, trapped inside the washing machine, and subjected to all sorts of other demeaning but very funny adventures. Indeed, the film is more a series of cinematic short stories than a continuous narrative. Considering that the movie's target audience is young children -- a group with notoriously short attention spans -- this is a wise decision.

The stories are tied together by the growing friendship between George and Stuart. George, initially apprehensive about having a mouse for a little brother, eventually succumbs to Stuart's bottomless charm and desire to fit in with the family. Indeed, Stuart doesn't appear to realize that he's a mouse at all. (When a tough neighborhood cat confronts Stuart, the cat is quite surprised that his prey doesn't flee. "Why would I run?" asks the baffled new arrival.)

What astonishes me about Stuart Little is not its aggressive cuteness (of which there is no shortage) but its abundance of wit. Works geared towards children are often insultingly banal, both to the parents who are forced to endure them and to the kids themselves. (I remember reading several "young adult" books while in elementary school and wondering why the author was "talking" to me like I was an idiot.) I'm not sure whom to credit for the story's wit--the screenwriters? The director? The actors, who convey the dialogue with such natural rhythm that it sounds almost musical at times? No matter: I'm sure the film's charm is a sum of all these parts, a feat made even more impressive by the fact that Stuart himself was inserted into the footage weeks after the actors had finished shooting their scenes and gone home.

A nice surprise for me was the all-too-brief appearance by Dabney Coleman as the kindly neighborhood doctor who attends to Stuart after his washing machine adventure. Coleman was one of my favorite actors of the '80s, appearing in such films as Cloak and Dagger, 9 to 5, and heck, just about any other movie you can think of. Everyone knows his face, even if they don't know his name; William H. Macy and Steve Buscemi are continuing this tradition today. I haven't seen Coleman on the screen in quite some time, and I was pleased that he got the film's best line:

MRS. LITTLE: "Doctor, how is Stuart?"

DOCTOR (gravely solemn): "Well... he's very clean."

Unless one's heart is made of stone, Stuart Little cannot possibly be described without employing words like "charming," "adorable" and "sweet." Portions of it are so cute it hurts, but many scenes made me laugh out loud, and I must confess that I had a pleasant time. I find it very interesting that I received more enjoyment from the film version of Stuart Little at age twenty-six than I did from E.B. White's novel when I was in elementary school. Is it because my tastes are changing, or because the movie is simply so much fun? While I can't say for sure, I suspect it's the latter.  


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