It's too tempting to resist. You see, there's a secret about Stuart Little that the fine folks at Sony don't want to blow. It's not that each one of the half-million computer-generated hairs on the mouse's head is cute as the dickens. It isn't that human stars Geena Davis and Hugh Laurie smile with such prolonged intensity, you'll wonder whether their faces are going to shatter. It isn't even that Lyle Lovett sings Burt Bacharach and Tim Rice's "Walking Tall" to usher us into the proceedings with that feel-good Toy Story (minus Randy Newman) sort of vibe. No, the secret involves co-screenwriter M. Night Shyamalan, best known for writing and directing the recent megahit The Sixth Sense. Early on in Stuart Little, the eponymous rodent is attacked by a cat, and what the producers don't want you to know is that ... for the rest of the movie, Stuart Little is dead but doesn't realize it!
Bwah-hah-hah! Just kidding, beg your pardon, and so forth. Adapted and updated fairly faithfully by Shyamalan and Greg Brooker from the classic 1945 children's book by E.B. White, this stocking-stuffer from director Rob Minkoff (co-director of The Lion King) proves light on surprises and wink-winks for the adults but ought to satisfy with ease the sweet teeth of the under-10 crowd. Although it falls somewhat short of the smart warmth of the Babe movies, it nonetheless earns a few strong notches over, say, the buffoonery of the live-action 101 Dalmatians.
Mr. and Mrs. Little (Laurie and Davis) want to adopt a sibling for their cuddly, bespectacled son, George (Jonathan Lipnicki), and in a New York City orphanage they conveniently encounter Stuart (voiced by Michael J. Fox), an exceedingly clever mouse with a yen for foppish casual wear. Ignoring the advice of Mrs. Keeper (Julia Sweeney) about adopting outside their species, the Littles bring Stuart home to their eccentric yet quaint ancestral brownstone and to a somewhat icy reception from George.
Aching to find his niche within "the nicest family in the world," Stuart cajoles over dinner, "Ask me anything!" A sullen George responds by asking him to pass the gravy, and Stuart's challenge is given perspective by a gravy boat that for him could easily be a boat. Wacky misadventures ensue, each followed by a few seconds for the audience to coo their approval of the cuteness at hand, until metaphor becomes reality and Stuart is bravely helming George's remote-control schooner, aptly named the Wasp, in an annual Central Park miniature-yacht race. This sequence is the movie's brightest and most visually exciting (thanks largely to director of photography Guillermo Navarro and model shop Thunderstone), and even the overarching orchestral swells of Alan Silvestri can't sink it. Once it's over, Stuart has won George's admiration and a sense of place in the Little home, until a couple of elder mice and a troop of very bad cats create the disorientation and havoc that fill up the movie's second half.
Sometimes it seems as if there are only about 500 actors employed by Hollywood to flesh out all movies, and, if this is true, Stuart Little boasts No. 499 (Brian Doyle Murray) and No. 500 (Dabney Coleman), the former senselessly kept to the sidelines as familial set-dressing and the latter afforded only one quickie giggle as a doctor. No. 1, Gene Hackman, must have been busy, but Nathan Lane, Chazz Palminteri, Steve Zahn, Bruno Kirby and Jennifer Tilly have some fun with animal voice-overs. ("Talk to the butt," intones Lane, giving feline posturing a suitable voice. In fact, the cats have so much screen time, you'll wonder whether you're watching a Friskies commercial.) As for Davis and Laurie, well, 'tis the season to be charitable: Rarely have such lovely actors accomplished so much by sweet-talking the air above their vacant palms. In particular, it takes a wonder like Davis to deliver a heartfelt moment of empathy to a special effect ("You have an empty space? That's so sad!") while still putting forth a strong, if curiously repressed, human presence.
The movie itself lacks Davis' coiled-up passion. Like a sort of Man on the Moon for kiddies, Stuart Little forces its snuggly weirdo on us and instructs us from the get-go to love him. Amid both cheap yuks (cat farts) and sparse cleverness (Jon Polito as a zealous detective), this feeling of force-feeding doesn't fade. In fact, one tot in the audience screamed, "No! I don't wanna watch this!" That child is obviously in the minority, but perhaps she sensed the lack of patience and subtlety -- or the glut of artificial sweeteners -- in this dashing, vivid romp.
Opens Dec. 17.