Given what a tricky proposition it is to adapt a classic children’s book for the screen, this take on E.B. White’s “Stuart Little” does a more-than-passable job of resurrecting the story for a new generation. Still, despite technically impressive animation, ample doses of humor and seamless special effects, the filmmakers have taken a slick, commercial approach to the material that turns White’s magical 1945 tale into a labored feel-good movie. That may make good business sense at a time when the name Buzz Lightyear means a lot more to kids than Stuart Little, but it won’t meet the expectations of viewers familiar with the source. Parents, at least initially, will happily take the kids along to this family-themed pic, but it’s questionable whether younger auds will enthusiastically take up the cause themselves.
Using White’s story as a point of departure, scribes M. Night Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense”) and Greg Brooker and director Rob Minkoff have taken license to play up the tale’s dramatic and cinematic elements. Presumably, the birth of a rodent into a human family (the book’s scenario) would have been difficult to explain, so in this version Mr. and Mrs. Little (played with earnest, eccentric charm by Hugh Laurie and Geena Davis) cheerfully trot off to a Gotham adoption agency, having promised to bring home a little brother for their son, George (“Jerry Maguire’s” Jonathan Lipnicki).
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George is less than thrilled when, for reasons not fully clear, his parents return from the orphanage with a mouse named Stuart (voiced with boyish glee by Michael J. Fox). Even more irked with the new arrival is family feline Snowbell (a scathingly funny Nathan Lane). Though Snowbell initially mistakes Stuart for dinner, Mr. Little reminds the cat that Stuart is family, “and we don’t eat family members.” Appalled, Snowbell’s alley cat pals insist the mouse must go, so they consult feline crime boss Smokey (a raspy Chazz Palminteri), who brings in a pair of wayward mice (Bruno Kirby and Jennifer Tilly) to pose as Stuart’s long-lost biological parents. Though saddened at Stuart’s departure, the Littles feel he’d be better off with his own kind. What they don’t know is that his “parents” are part of an elaborate kidnapping scheme.
Stuart’s desperate attempts to return home make up much of the final act, along with a Central Park confrontation that pits the mouse against a group of tough-talking felines (among them a hilariously dry Steve Zahn). Some of this sequence might prove too scary for small viewers, though most everyone escapes unscathed.
The humans play supporting roles here; without much to do, they tend to serve as window dressing in support of the more interesting animated creatures. The animals, especially the cats, get all the best lines, making the humans seem dull or dim-witted by comparison.
In all tech areas, “Stuart Little” is top-notch. The digitally rendered title character is thoroughly convincing, with attention paid to the most minute details, from the sheen of his fur to the folds of his tiny trousers (his head alone boasts a half-million computer-generated hairs). Bill Brzeski’s production design envisions the Littles’ Gotham as an idealized, squeaky-clean city that, in Guillermo Navarro’s lens, has all the intimate charm of a hamlet. Similarly, Joseph Porro’s dapper costumes recall a more innocent era, and the striking primary colors of Mrs. Little’s wardrobe complement her resolutely perky demeanor. Alan Silvestri’s upbeat score advances the action nicely.