The Little family just got bigger.
Finally, the art of movie making has reached the point where anything, anything, a writer can imagine can be translated to the big screen. Plus, the tools aren’t being exclusively used to create sci-fi spectacles; they’re being used to create films of all sorts that will be enjoyed by any audience. Here, a beloved, whimsical children’s story is brought to life in a way that could only have been imagined even a few years ago.
Stuart Little is based upon a children’s book of the same name penned by E.B. White. White was a columnist and writer for many years, but has been remembered best for the three children’s books he wrote: Stuart Little (published in 1945), Charlotte’s Web (which came to the screen as an animated musical in 1973), and The Trumpet Of The Swan. His books carried a common theme: the unique individual who defined their place in the world by the characteristic that made them unique. In the case of Stuart Little, it was the mouse born to a human family who had to find his place in the world.
Stuart Little retains the basic premise of the book, though the story has been overhauled for a more modern presentation. The young mouse Stuart (voiced by Michael J. Fox — the Back To The Future trilogy, The Frighteners) has lived much of his life in an orphanage, neglected by parents looking for a child. That is, until Mr. and Mrs. Little (Hugh Laurie [Sense and Sensibility, the BBC’s “Blackadder“] and Geena Davis [The Accidental Tourist, The Long Kiss Goodnight]) visit the orphanage looking for a little brother for their son George (Jonathan Lipnicki — Jerry Maguire).
Needless to say, Stuart’s adjustment to the Little household does not go smoothly. George didn’t quite expect that his little brother was going to be three inches tall. His well-meaning relatives give him gifts of bowling balls and bicycles. He’s almost drowned in the washing machine. And worst of all, the family cat, Snowbell (voiced by Nathan Lane — The Lion King, The Birdcage), resents being the pet of a mouse. Snowbell pleads to Smokey (voiced by Chazz Palminteri — The Usual Suspects), the leader of the local alley cats, to remove Stuart from his house. The result is two mice (voiced by Bruno Kirby [City Slickers] and Jennifer Tilly [Bound]) showing up on the Little’s doorstep claiming to be Stuart’s parents. Once Stuart learns the truth, he risks a nighttime trip through Central Park to find his way back to his real home.
I’m glossing over the story, but those details should give you an idea of what to expect. The movie purposely plays like it was lifted from the pages of a storybook, or has sprung from the mind and imagination of a child. Everything in the movie exists in its own world, where it would be plausible for a mouse to talk and be the son of a human couple. It’s played straight, without a hint of the irony and cynicism that plague most modern productions. Therein lies Stuart Little‘s charm. I enjoyed the movie because of its innocence. It tells a simple, pleasant story. Sure, it’s not realistic, but does it have to be? Why does everything have to be believable to be entertaining?
In the Opening Statement, I made mention of the special effects involved in the production of Stuart Little. After seeing the brief effects reel shown during the Academy Awards broadcast, I was impressed enough that I went to my local bargain theatre to catch it on the big screen. The only thing that brought me out of the story was trying to look for imperfections. There aren’t any. George Lucas may have received the most press for creating digital characters for The Phantom Menace, but the best achievement in that department was the creation of the living, breathing — and completely digital — mouse in Stuart Little. Stuart is perfect. He doesn’t look cartoony (and that sure can’t be said of Jar-Jar Binks). Stuart moves like a mouse-sized human. His fur reacts to his environment. The fabric of his clothes moves like it should. After watching the supplemental material on the DVD (more on that later), I have even more respect for the sheer volume of effort that went into the movie’s production.
The effects were the work of four effects houses: Rhythm & Hues, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Centropolis Effects, and Patrick Tatopoulos Designs. Rhythm & Hues was the company responsible for making animals appear to be talking in the wonderful Babe. Their work with the cats in Stuart Little is even more realistic than their previous efforts. Sony Pictures Imageworks handled the bulk of the CG work. Their list of credits includes some of the most impressive recent effects movies: Speed, Starship Troopers, Godzilla (say what you will about the movie itself, but the effects were remarkable), and the upcoming The Hollow Man.
Columbia has raised the bar once again for the single-disc special edition. You will not find a more exquisite disc than Stuart Little. First off, the film itself. There’s hardly any point in saying anything about the video transfer, because it is as good as it gets. There are two versions of the disc available: one with a full-frame transfer and one with widescreen. Naturally, you’ll want the widescreen version (look for the packaging with the red stripes at the top and bottom rather than the blue). The movie is presented in 1.66:1 anamorphic and there are absolutely no problems with it. No grain, no dirt, no NTSC artifacts, and the colors are perfect. (I’ll amend that by saying there is some dirt specks on the Columbia splash screen at the very beginning of the movie…but that’s it.) If every transfer looked like this, DVD reviewers would be forced out of their jobs…at least there’s still studios out there like MGM and Buena Vista to bugger things up. But I digress.
Audio is presented both in Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround. Like most Columbia discs, the default is the Dolby Surround track, so make sure you select the track appropriate to your system. The film’s sound design isn’t particularly flashy, so there’s no floor-rumbling bass or spiffy directional effects. However, Alan Silvestri’s score has excellent dynamic range and liberally uses the surround channels. Several scenes, including the centerpiece boat race, tastefully use ambient sounds that add to the experience.
And where to begin with the extras? I’ll just peruse them in the order they’re presented in the menus. There’s two commentaries: one with director Rob Minkoff and animation supervisor Henry Anderson, and another track with senior visual effects supervisor John Dykstra and visual effects supervisor Jerome Chen. Both tracks deal mostly with the technical aspects of making Stuart Little, though they both make for very interesting listening. There is a very clever trivia game, entitled “Stuart’s Central Park Adventure Game.” It doesn’t just ask you a static list of questions like most trivia games on DVD. You can choose three levels of difficulty: Little Mouse, Big Mouse, or Professor Mouse. The goal is to answer enough questions until you advance on the game board to the Little house. If you miss a question, you move back a space and are asked a different question. Going through each level (and purposely missing some questions to see what would happen), I’d say I saw at least fifteen different questions per level.
The visual effects interactive featurette presents six scenes from the movie, then breaks them down into four stages and explains how the scenes were built. Next to the isolated score, it was my favorite section, but I’m getting ahead of myself. For the kids, there’s a read-along that can be viewed with or without narration by Michael J. Fox. Next is the “basement treasures” section. Here, we get artist’s screen tests (showing 3D audition reels), deleted scenes (six of them, in various stages of effects completion, with and without director’s commentary), a visual effects gag reel (featuring two brief animated scenes), a production gag reel (with live-action bloopers), and a concept reel of the boat race sequence (showing animated versions of the first storyboarded sequence). Three music videos are included: “If You Can’t Rock Me” by The Brian Setzer Orchestra, “You’re Where I Belong” by Trisha Yearwood, and “I Need To Know” by R Angels.
All of the preceding extras are on the first menu screen of extras. On the next extras screen, there is a scrapbook of production sketches (worth seeing just for the artists’ representation of Stuart in sports uniforms and mafia get-up), a 22-minute featurette produced for HBO, talent files, and six theatrical trailers (Stuart Little, The Adventures Of Elmo In Grouchland, Madeline, The Nuttiest Nutcracker, Baby Geniuses, and Muppets from Space). Oh, and there’s a link to the extra I wish every disc would include: an isolated score track. Alan Silvestri is not one of my favorite composers, but his score matches the movie very nicely, and it even has a distinct George Gershwin flavor to it at times.
If you have children, Stuart Little should be added to your collection post-haste. Even if you do not, the movie is charming and enjoyable. The wealth of extras and reference-quality film presentation are enough to make it a must-buy for anyone dedicated to the DVD format.
The advances in technology make me wish that other anthropomorphic animal stories would be made into live-action movies. Specifically, I’m thinking of E.B. White’s own The Trumpet Of The Swan and Beverly Cleary’s The Mouse And The Motorcycle (thought that story, obviously, may be confused with Stuart Little).
There are so many things about Stuart Little I have neglected to mention, though I will try to wrap up those loose ends here. In the director’s commentary, Rob Minkoff mentions that the screenplay went through many drafts before Columbia committed to making the movie. The draft that sent the movie into production was penned by M. Night Shyamalan, the screenwriter and director of The Sixth Sense. The voice acting is first-rate. Michael J. Fox brings warmth with a note of shyness and tentativeness to Stuart, making him very likable. Nathan Lane…how do I say this without sounding prejudiced? He brings his flamboyant personality to the housecat, and makes it a very well-defined character. I didn’t mention Snowbell’s flatulent friend Monty, who is voiced by Steve Zahn (Out of Sight, Happy, Texas). Zahn’s voice is perfect for the befuddled cat. And last but not least, there is an all-too brief appearance by Jeffrey Jones as the brother of Mr. Little, Uncle Crenshaw. Jones should be a face familiar to any filmgoer for his roles in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Hunt for Red October, Beetlejuice, and Sleepy Hollow.