Mouse Hunt” is the cat’s meow. Blending the graceful slapstick of Laurel and Hardy with the mock-Gothic visuals of “The Adams Family,” this often screamingly funny comedy about a resilient rodent has enough across-the-board appeal to click with audiences of all ages. Even though it faces stiff B.O. competition in the current holiday season demolition derby, pic could eke out enough coin to qualify for sleeper status. Down the road, ancillary prospects are even rosier.
Nathan Lane and Lee Evans (“Funny Bones”) are ingeniously teamed as Ernie and Lars, estranged brothers reunited by the death of their aged father, string manufacturer Rudolph Smuntz (the late William Hickey). Ernie, the cynical owner-operator of a pretentiously trendy eatery, wants to sell the old man’s factory, a cavernous antique that appears to be a holdover from the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution. But the far more sentimental Lars wants to preserve the family business, and swears fealty to his father’s motto: “A world without string is chaos.”
Unfortunately, Ernie loses his restaurant — and gains a great deal of notoriety — when his most famous customer, the city mayor, dies of a heart attack during a lavish meal. Just as unfortunately, Lars is booted out of his house by his shrewish wife (Vicki Lewis), who can’t understand why her husband won’t accept a firm offer for the string factory.
So the two brothers must take advantage of another inheritance from their late father, a dilapidated mansion that’s been vacant for several years. Shortly after they move in, they discover the place is an architectural masterpiece that may be worth millions. Trouble is, an incredibly crafty mouse has made the mansion his home. And he won’t leave without a fight.
First-time feature helmer Gore Verbinski — a commercial director best known for introducing the “Budweiser frogs” — does a nifty job of quickly establishing and skillfully sustaining a kind of fractured fairy-tale stylization. “Mouse Hunt” begins on a darkly humorous note, as the two bickering brothers inadvertently disrupt their father’s funeral.
It takes awhile for Adam Rifkin’s clever screenplay to place Ernie and Lars in the mansion, and in conflict with the mouse. But once the brothers start to match wits with the rodent, pic becomes an amusingly twisted live-action cartoon , with Lane and Evans playing increasingly frustrated Wile E. Coyotes to the mouse’s indefatigably resourceful Roadrunner. Throughout most of “Mouse Hunt,” the four-legged title character is impressively portrayed by a real mouse — well, OK, several real mice — under the supervision of animal trainer Boone Narr. Children will be especially delighted by scenes in which the mouse scurries and jumps across floors and onto shelves.
Even so, Stan Winston’s Animatronic mice are even funnier, particularly when the action is viewed from the rodent’s point of view. When Lars hammers strips of wood across baseboards, the mouse sees nails the size of redwoods crashing through the wall. Later, when the brothers try to flood him out with a garden hose, the plucky rodent looks very much like a panicky bit player trapped below deck in “Titanic.”
But the most special effect in “Mouse Hunt” is the well-timed give-and-take between the top-billed human stars. Lane mixes sharp-tongued sarcasm and self-satisfied fussiness to create a character who echoes Oliver Hardy and, occasionally, Groucho Marx. (A mischievous in-joke: Lane, who provided a key voice for Disney’s “The Lion King,” quotes that animated blockbuster while greeting a guest.) Evans has some hilarious moments of herky-jerky physicality when the generally sweet-natured Lars is repeatedly outwitted and enraged by his four-legged adversary. Together, the two leads bring out the best, and the funniest, in each other, suggesting that future screen pairings may be in order.
Among the supporting players, Christopher Walken is a standout with his self-mocking portrayal of an obsessed exterminator whose professionalism borders on dementia. Debra Christofferson and Camilla Soeberg are amusing as two zaftig sisters who don’t mind being pawed by the mouse-hunting brothers. Other first-rate comic turns come from Maury Chaykin as a multimillionaire who wants to buy the mansion, Lewis as the wife who wants to sell it and Eric Christmas as the lawyer who can’t quite figure out what’s going on.
An aptly frail Hickey appears only in a hospital-room flashback. But his character manages to dominate the proceedings, thanks to a portrait that periodically changes expression to punctuate the action. The well-known character actor died shortly after completing work on “Mouse Hunt,” and the pic is dedicated to his memory.
Production design by Linda DeScenna is an invaluable asset. In addition to creating the dilapidated mansion, she also designed a spectacularly grim city pound for the brothers to visit when they go looking for a mean, mouse-hunting cat. Composer Alan Silvestri provides a playful, mood-enhancing score. Other tech credits add to the fun.