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Building a Bitter 'Mouse' Trap

By John Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 19, 1997

  Movie Critic

Gore Verbinski
Nathan Lane;
Lee Evans;
Christopher Walken;
Maury Chaykin;
Eric Christmas
Running Time:
1 hour, 33 minutes
For slapstick violence
"Mouse Hunt" is a wonderful movie: inspired, hilarious, visually inventive. Just don't take your kids to see it.

"What's that?" you say. "But isn't it a children's movie?" That's what the folks at DreamWorks believe. The film is rated PG – same as "Flubber" – and previews for it have been showing before such G-rated fare as "Anastasia" and "The Little Mermaid." What gives? I'll explain below, but first . . .

The Smuntz brothers, Ernie (Nathan Lane) and Lars (Lee Evans), inherit an antiquated string factory from their string-magnate father. This is classic string, mind you: lengths of rough twine twisted into scratchy balls. But today's world prefers cord: nice, clean, nylon cord. The plant's a money-losing cesspool, filled with shuffling, inefficient workers. Also left to Lars and Ernie is a claptrap mansion whose only saving grace is that it was designed by the famed architect LaRue. If Lars and Ernie can fix up the place, they can auction it off and make a fortune.

The only thing standing in their way is a tiny rodent who's smarter than both of them. The whole movie is a Rube Goldberg contraption, a windup toy that careens from scene to scene as the stakes are raised and more powerful mouse-eliminating weapons are employed. Much of the film is from the mouse's point of view, and we can see how wonderful the world is to him: the walls perfect highways, electrical cords little suspension bridges, human food an irresistible temptation. But the world is full of danger, too. The mouse-eye view of a nail gun plunging nails into the wainscoting is as terrifying as any rolling boulder chasing Indiana Jones. Created by a combination of real animals, animatronic creatures and computer graphics, the mouse is suitably cute and enormously inventive.

As an exterminator of last resort, Christopher Walken does a wonderful impersonation of . . . Christopher Walken. He unleashes every high-tech gadget in his arsenal on the mouse but also understands mice on a very basic level, so basic that he . . . Well, let's just say he has an interesting way of determining what his quarry eats.

Lane wears a put-upon expression for most of the movie, his eyebrows crinkled into a look of bemused (and misplaced) superiority. As the dumber brother, Evans isn't quite so manic as he was in 1995's unsung gem "Funny Bones." He's sublimated his British accent and toned down the scary nature of his pratfalls, but toward the end he does get to display some of his wonderful physical comedy.

So why my misgivings about "Mouse Hunt"? There is a hip, dark undercurrent that seems to have infected family movies in the last few years. Everything must be grimy and gritty and joyless. Settings must mix Dickensian squalor with Depression-era hopelessness. We've seen it in the live-action sequences of the (quite good) "James and the Giant Peach" and in the (not very good) "Matilda." Renewed interest in the dyspeptic Roald Dahl, author of the books both those movies were based on, is partially responsible, but I lay the blame at someone else's feet: Terry Gilliam. The creators of this new breed of family film (including "Mouse Hunt" director Gore Verbinski) seem inspired by Gilliam's dystopian "Brazil."

Here are some of the things in "Mouse Hunt" that bothered me as a parent:

Smuntz senior is played by the thin-limbed William Hickey. He's not a comic old guy; he's a disturbing old guy. On his death bed, he raises a bare, bony arm that's as brittle as a bread stick and discolored by a bruise, the inevitable result perhaps of an errant IV needle. He looks like an AIDS patient from a Benetton ad.

The explosions in "Mouse Hunt" are especially violent. The fireballs are huge and glowing, turning their victims into juicy, honey-roasted projectiles.

The word "bastard" isn't used that often in screenwriter Adam Rifkin's script, but it's used. I like that word, and I like the expression "rat bastard" even more; it's especially fitting in this movie. But should the audience of "The Little Mermaid" really be adding it to their vocabulary?

I must sound like either a terrible prude (what's wrong with an explosion or two?) or an irresponsible father (how could you take your 6-year-old to a PG movie?). What I think I am, though, is a parent who wishes Hollywood would either decide it can live without the grade-school dollar on certain movies or remember its audience on films it wants to market to children, even if that means softening its outlook.

But "Mouse Hunt" really is a pretty good movie.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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