Like a soft, well-worn security blanket, the "Stuart Little" franchise cuddles and mollifies, swaddling viewers in the warmth and easy rhythms of life in some indeterminate, wholesome past. This is a good thing: Although the hip, even subversive humor of such contemporary animated hits as "Toy Story" and "Shrek" offer rare opportunities for the family to laugh together, albeit not always at the same things, the "Stuart Little" movies invite parents and little ones to snuggle up, safe in the reassuring confines of its idealized world.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the opening shot of "Stuart Little 2," in which a healed Manhattan skyline is filmed to the strains of "Put a Little Love in Your Heart." From the outset, it's clear that we're entering a different world from the one outside the theater, a world whose sharp edges have been tenderly smoothed out.
"Stuart Little 2" finds our hero -- a nattily dressed white mouse named Stuart, voiced by Michael J. Fox -- happily ensconced in the Little family. Mr. and Mrs. Little (Hugh Laurie and Geena Davis) still live in that rose-bedecked brownstone on Fifth Avenue, and they are still devoted to their adoptive mouse. But the family has grown: There's a little Little, baby Martha (Anna and Ashley Hoelck), which makes Stuart the middle Little. He now shares a bunk bed with his older brother, George (Jonathan Lipnicki), a setup that offers all sorts of opportunities for Stuart to use his imagination. For example, he gets to the bottom bunk on a cunning little dumbwaiter built from tinkertoys.
Fans will remember that the first "Stuart Little" concerned Stuart's place in the Little family, not only as an adoptive child but one of a different species. Those issues have been well settled by now: Stuart and George are brothers to the core, going to school together and playing on the same soccer team. Of course, Stuart happens to get around in a snazzy, mouse-size roadster, and when he plays soccer (his jersey number is 1/2), he is in constant danger of ending up skewered on someone's cleat.
It's no wonder that Mrs. Little is overprotective of Stuart, a state of affairs that is making the spirited little mouse increasingly frustrated. He wants to prove to his parents that he's able to take care of himself, and one day his chance drops out of the sky -- literally -- in the form of Margalo (Melanie Griffith), a coquettish little bird whose wing was hurt while she was being chased by a terrifying peregrine falcon (James Woods). Stuart has finally found a friend his own size, and as he experiences the heart flutters of first love, he also becomes embroiled in an adventure that will test his mettle, ingenuity and airplane-flying skills.
Folks who enjoyed the first "Stuart Little," which was based on the classic E.B. White book, will be well served by the sequel, which hews to the original's look, characterization and emotional tone. Fox again proves himself to be a terrifically appealing mouse, his scratchy voice carrying tones of both pluck and vulnerability. Nathan Lane is back voicing Snowbell, the haughty cat who looks like he sleeps on his face and who has reached a sort of snooty detente with Stuart. As in the first "Stuart," Snowbell has the best zingers, many of them having to do with litter box humor and the vagaries of the feline appetite. Both Griffith and Woods are perfectly suited to their characters, especially Woods, who, come to think of it, could have portrayed the villainous falcon without benefit of digital effects.
The best computer animation is so good that it doesn't draw attention to itself, which is very much the case in "Stuart Little 2," a miracle of meticulous detail wherein pains have been taken over every mouse hair and bird feather. (This is, after all, a movie whose credits include three for "feather system development engineers.") The animated characters engage in such natural movements and, more important, exude such subtle emotional expression that they mesh seamlessly with their live-action counterparts. The result is an entirely believable world, one in which viewers won't think twice about the sight of a mouse driving his own car down a Madison Avenue sidewalk or a cat hailing a taxicab.
Make no mistake: There are some relatively sophisticated references in "Stuart Little 2," such as a quick homage to "Vertigo," when Stuart confronts the falcon in a scary urban aerie. And there are some genuine scenes of mild peril, especially one scary shot on a garbage barge and the hair-raising final chase. But the filmmakers of "Stuart Little 2" have produced a universe that cushions any potentially fatal blows; in this regard production designer Bill Brzeski deserves special mention. As he did with the first "Stuart," Brzeski has created a look that is at once contemporary and nostalgic, mixing up classic stripes, plaids and harlequin diamonds and drenching them all in lively hues of red and yellow. The world of "Stuart Little" is a wonderful thing to snuggle into, as full of heart and pep and innocence as the title character himself.
Stuart Little 2 (72 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for very mild profanity.