"YOU SPIT Stuart out this instant!" yells Mr. Little (Hugh Laurie) to his pet cat, Snowbell. The cat has -- quite understandably -- all but swallowed the little mouse that just crossed his path.
But in "Stuart Little," a charming, stellar adaptation of E.B. White's children's book, Stuart is no ordinary mouse. Adopted from an orphan agency, he's the latest addition to the Little family. He's to be treated as a person -- not Snowbell's next meal.
Director Rob Minkoff's movie isn't just great fun. It's an uproariously good time, thanks to a beguiling combination of live action and animatronics, inspired wit from screenwriter M. Night Shyamalan , and lively offscreen (and onscreen) performances from Michael J. Fox, Nathan Lane, David Alan Grier and others.
I'm telling you, this is "Babe" with mice. Don't walk, scurry to the theater nearest you.
Stuart -- voiced with self-deprecating softness by Fox (yes, a Fox speaking for a mouse) -- is smart, sensitive and desperate to belong to someone. He gets his wish when Mr. and Mrs. Little (Geena Davis) welcome him into their home.
But there's dissension in the Little ranks. Nine-year-old George Little (Jonathan Lipnicki) isn't exactly thrilled about referring to a rodent as his brother. And Snowbell, well, Snowbell is simply outraged. A mouse as a person? Higher than him? This is going to go down like a hairball with the tomcats in the alley.
Basically, Stuart has to charm his way into the hearts of both George and Snowbell. He gets the chance with George when he helps his human stepbrother build and sail a toy boat for a big race.
But Snowbell's not nearly so easy. Egged on by a mean-spirited cat, Smokey (Chazz Palminteri in hilarious form), he hatches a nasty plan to get rid of that mouse permanently.
The plot line is peppered with more than enough activity to occupy young, fidgety viewers. And director Minkoff, who co-directed "The Lion King," has a masterful penchant for great visual gags -- most of them having to do with Stuart's smallness in the human world. At the dining table, for instance, when George asks Stuart to pass him the gravy, the diminutive Stuart stares forlornly at the wash-basin-size gravy boat towering in front of him. Ulp!
But Shyamalan (who wrote and directed "The Sixth Sense") is my favorite player here. He rolls out so many one-liners, I'm considering a return engagement to remember them all. The funniest material occurs in the running battle between Stuart and Snowbell, whose deliciously vindictive manner is ably voiced by Nathan Lane. "I can't believe I'm arguing with lunch," exclaims Snowbell at one point. And when the accommodating Stuart suggests rubbing Snowbell's tummy, the cat retorts: "How would you like to rub it from the inside, Mouse Boy?"
Nasty, sure. But good nasty.
STUART LITTLE (PG, 92 minutes) -- Contains the prospect of violence, as well as puppy "doo." Area theaters.