Beneath the bustling streets of Manhattan is a thriving community of rodents and assorted creatures whose society strikingly mirrors that of the humans above ground. These cuddly varmints, the creations of Germany's Augsburger Puppet Theatre, inhabit a world of eco-conscious star-crossed lovers in "A Rat's Tale," based on the kids yarn by Tor Seidler.

Beneath the bustling streets of Manhattan is a thriving community of rodents and assorted creatures whose society strikingly mirrors that of the humans above ground. These cuddly varmints, the creations of Germany’s Augsburger Puppet Theatre, inhabit a world of eco-conscious star-crossed lovers in “A Rat’s Tale,” based on the kids yarn by Tor Seidler. Though well intentioned and visually unusual, the film will appeal almost exclusively to the youngest moviegoers, and will translate into much stronger biz on video than in theaters. (In Germany, where the Augsburger troupe is acclaimed, the pic opened in early 1997 and did solid biz, grossing more than $3 million.) “Tale” opens today in seven markets including New York and Los Angeles.

Commercially, its prospects have been dimmed by the more successful integration of puppets and flesh-and-blood performers in the work of Jim Henson’s Muppets. The current generation of American youngsters is apt to find the artistry of the new film antiquated.

Essentially a tale of young love, pic centers on the cute couple of Monty, an artist, and upper-crust politician’s daughter Isabella. They meet when Monty rescues her from the rain and inducts her into the rapid transit of Gotham’s sewer system. They’re mutually smitten, but Isabella’s family will not approve of her dating beneath her station.

At about the same time the “democratcy” is in the throes of a major crisis. Kingpin exterminator Dollart (Josef Ostendorf) is on a campaign to rid the wharves of rodents with his lethal new spray. The rat council orders all workers to ferret out money in order to buy out their enemy. But with 100% of their energies devoted to that goal, the rodents ignore their work cleaning up the city’s drains, and the nest is in jeopardy of being engulfed by rising waters.

Monty, as luck would have it, has the opportunity to save the day. He’s been given magic shells from Mexico that were destined for the mythical kingdom of Manhateen. They have the power not only to clean up the physical mess of New York but also to clear men’s minds. But he and Isabella and the loquacious Jean-Paul Canalligator must venture to the land of magic to set things right.

Unfortunately, the strings are all-too-present in “A Rat’s Tale,” slowing down the narrative momentum. While that’s not a significant problem for the initiated, it poses a commercial stumbling block for pic’s target audience.

It also creates more of a division between the marionettes and the live actors than one would desire. That divide widens as a result of poorly developed or caricatured roles for performers Lauren Hutton, Beverly D’Angelo and Jerry Stiller. The filmmakers would have been better advised to confine the yarn to its puppet characters rather than mix and match realistic settings with the more fanciful sets below the streets.

One can’t fault the sentiment expressed in the picture or its handsome packaging. But in the international marketplace, “A Rat’s Tale” will be best served by the intimacy of the home screen.

A Rat's Tale

Production

A Legacy Films release of a Monty Film production. Produced by Hans Peter Clahsen. Executive producer, Christa-Maria Klein. Directed by Michael F. Huse. Screenplay, Werner Morgenrath, Peter Scheerbaum, based on the book by Tor Seidler.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Piotr Lenar; editor, Timothy McLeish; music, Frederic Talgorn; production designer, Austen Spriggs; set decorator, Chantal Giuliani; costumes, Eun-Young Kim; marionette designers, Hannelore Marschall-Oehmichen, Jurgen Marschall; sound (Dolby Digital), Olav Gross, Josef Porzchen; assistant directors, Richard Greenberg, Ulrike Hamacher. Reviewed at the Samuel Goldwyn Pavilion, L.A., March 14, 1998. MPAA Rating: G. Running time: 89 MIN.

With

Evelyn Jellybelly - Lauren Hutton Mrs. Dollart - Beverly D'Angelo Prof. Plumpingham - Jerry Stiller Lou Dollart - Josef Ostendorf Voices: Monty Mad-Rat Jr. - Dee Bradley Baker Isabella Noble-Rat - Lynsey Bartilson Old Monty - Ray Guth Rudi Rake-Rat - Scott MacDonald Jean-Paul Canalligator - Donald Arthur
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