Rated PG, 92 min. Directed by Rob Minkoff. Voices by Michael J. Fox, Nathan Lane, Chazz Palminteri, Steve Zahn, Bruno Kirby, Jennifer Tilly, David Alan Grier, Stan Freberg. Starring Geena Davis, Hugh Laurie, Jonathan Lipnicki, Brian Doyle-Murray, Estelle Getty, Dabney Coleman, Julia Sweeney, Jeffrey Jones.
Somewhere, E.B. White is rolling in his grave, and not just because you know there's already some shadily retitled porn epic just on the horizon. Little Stuart, indeed. No, White is chewing graveside turf because Rob Minkoff's (co-director of Disney's The Lion King) retelling of White's classic children's book is a spun-sugar treacle-bomb, though a darn good-looking one. I didn't really expect White's clear-eyed prose to translate to the screen unsullied, but this isn't the Stuart I remember from childhood. Rose-tinted glasses? Perhaps, but were the neighborhood cats always speaking like Ray Liotta in GoodFellas? That's what you get when you cast Bruno Kirby and Chazz Palminteri in feline voice roles, I guess, but it's strikes me as out of place. The script, co-written by The Sixth Sense director M. Night Shyamalan and Greg Booker, takes liberties -- you knew it would -- but manages to keep several of Stuart's escapades in place. There's a wild, hilarious sailboat fight in the lake of Central Park that survives intact, and the overall tone is empathetic to the novel, but this feels more like a Warner Bros. version than anything White ever did. Stuart Little (voiced by Fox), the mouse adopted by the Little family, is still fond of his little wind-up roadster, and he still tangles with Snowbell (voiced by Lane), the Little family cat. When Mr. and Mrs. Little (Laurie, almost but not quite in Bertie Wooster mode, and Davis) return home from the “Public Orphanage” with a spunky little white mouse instead of a little brother for their son George (Jerry Maguire's Lipnicki), who promptly pitches a fit worthy of John McEnroe. There's something about Lipnicki's spiky-haired, gap-toothed visage that rankles. You get the feeling that if he were sitting behind you on a trans-Atlantic flight he'd intentionally pop too much Ritalin and end up beating out John Bonham's greatest hits on the back of your seat the whole way there. Ugh. He's not that bad here, but I really felt for the littlest Little when he met his new, thoroughly unimpressed sibling. Which brings me to one of the film's saving graces, Stuart himself. Visual effects coordinator John Dykstra (Star Wars, Industrial Light & Magic) and his tech crew have created an absolutely wonderful Stuart. Voiced by Fox, he mimics the actor's “aw shucks” charm right on down the line, from his hands-in-pocket slouch to his boisterous good humor. Also notable are production designer Bill Brzeski's work, which turns the Big Apple into the Big Candy Apple, bursting with primary colors and a stylized Central Park in which no one would be afraid to stroll after dark. Little (ahem) touches like that go a long way here, and despite my curmudgeonly take, most of White's message -- the importance of family, friendship, and sticking up for the (ahem again) little guy -- survive the ride unscathed. Grownups and their charges could certainly do worse this holiday season, and if that doesn't do it for you, well, hey, you can always wait for Little Stuart to arrive. Preferably in a plain brown wrapper.
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