Sat, 18 Mar 2000

'Stuart Little': Of mice, men and adopted children trying to fit in

By Tam Notosusanto

JAKARTA (JP): When was the last time you fell in love with a digital image? It couldn't have been during the screening of Jurassic Park, none of those dinosaurs look even remotely adorable. And the racially offensive Jar-Jar Binks from last summer's Star Wars Episode I, The Phantom Menace isn't exactly someone you would think of fondly, either.

That's why, when it comes to digital drawings with endearing personalities, Stuart Little is in a class of his own. First of all, he was given birth to by E.B. White, one of America's legendary essayists and author of the classic children books Charlotte's Web and Trumpet of the Swan.

Secondly, the new Columbia Pictures film that bears his name gives him the realistic-looking physique of a mouse and smooth mobility courtesy of Imageworks' visual wizardry. And thirdly, the voice talent of Michael J. Fox completes him.

Watching Stuart Little, we may try to constantly remind ourselves that the film's title role is performed by nothing but computer-generated artwork, that the human actors interacting with him in the film were actually communicating with a blank space during shooting. But that can prove difficult, especially when Stuart is a lively, real-looking mouse, despite his ability to speak and his swell taste for attire.

This film truly makes him an unforgettable, lovable creature. And whatever sort of state-of-the-art visual effects can never help a film that lacks a well-written story. In this case, Stuart Little benefits from the involvement of M. Night Shyamalan, who has just become a household name in Hollywood after his smash hit The Sixth Sense and a previous film, Wide Awake, both incidentally take on children's problems as their central issues.

Shyamalan and co-screenwriter Greg Brooker adapted White's book with a considerable degree of loyalty. After all, you can't just eliminate the quirky and eccentric worlds that E.B. White stories deliver: the farm setting of the multi-species characters from Charlotte's Web; the unusual connection between a human boy and his pet gander in Trumpet of the Swan.

However, Shyamalan and Brooker chose not to be as radical as the original.

The book has the human Mrs. Little giving birth to a baby mouse. The film's beginning shows Mr. And Mrs. Little (played by Hugh Laurie and Geena Davis) going to an orphanage and deciding to adopt the young mouse Stuart. Even that is offbeat enough.

But no matter, if the book teaches the message of unconditional love and acceptance, the film specifically becomes an ode to adopted children everywhere as Stuart tries to adjust to a new life living among humans. And this film is not just repeating the core statement of Disney's Tarzan, which is "no matter how different you look, we still love you anyway."

The setup provides a good amount of space for a fine story to develop.

Because of Mr. and Mrs. Little's out-of-this-world mind frame, Stuart becomes a member of a human home. But his existence is not instantly welcomed by the Little's better-grounded, nine-year-old boy, George (Jonathan Lipnicki), who was looking forward to having a human brother. And the family's pet cat, the Chinchilla Persian named Snowbell (voiced by Nathan Lane) is not so excited either about becoming a pet cat to a mouse.

And so, Stuart's quest is to win George's approval and to overcome Snowbell's resentment. This will lead him to exciting adventures that include participating in a thrilling toy boat race and being chased by a gang of stray cats assigned to eliminate him.

Director Rob Minkoff, who co-directed the animated feature The Lion King, manages to come up with another satisfying movie for the whole family, thanks to his talent of handling and tying together all the fine material that was presented to him. Material that includes the commendable writing; the Burt Bacharach-Tim Rice-composed opening ditty; Bill Brzeski's colorful, wonderfully quirky production design; and the Oscar- worthy visual effects that are not only responsible for the film's leading man, but also for the scenes featuring all the trained, live cats, who speak English with Babe-like lip-synching precision. And of course, there's the talented actors behind the voices, who get to do more than what Laurie, Davis, Lipnicki and other wholly-featured actors in this film were allowed to do.

Lane, whose voice was also starred in The Lion King again shows off his vocal prowess, this time playing the antagonistic, but funny Snowbell. And this marks his second time (after Mouse Hunt) playing a character irritated and outsmarted by a mouse.

Wonderful supporting voices were supplied by Bruno Kirby, Jennifer Tilly, Steve Zahn and also Chazz Palminteri, who brings his typical hoodlum persona to the leader of the stray cats, Smokey. But it is Fox that charms us the most with his sweet and earnest delivery of Stuart Little. In his vocal career (he also voices for the Homeward Bound series) never before has he been aptly cast, and never before has the result been this magical.