Mouse Hunt (review)

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The Best Laid Plans…

The world needs more flicks like Mouse Hunt (the second film from DreamWorks SKG) — well, my world does, anyway. It’s nasty, wacky, Tim-Burton weird, and funny as hell.

Mouse Hunt opens, stylishly and somberly, with the funeral of string magnate Randolf Smuntz (the man who famously said, “a world without string is chaos”). Two seconds later, though, the movie descends into the best kind of cartoony chaos — the mishap with the coffin has to be seen to be believed — and it stays there for the next hour and a half.
Randolf’s sons Ernie (Nathan Lane) and Lars (Lee Evans) inherit not only Smuntz String (“the future of string”) but also an abandoned, ramshackle old house that happens to be worth millions — or it would be if Ernie and Lars could just get rid of the cunning mouse who’s had the run of the place.

Think Mouse Alone. The clever and cute little thing consistently outwits these bungling intruders in its home. Lane and Evans are brilliant — like a pair of live-action Elmer Fudds, they trip over each other, blow up things (including themselves) inadvertently, conk each other on the head, and walk away from it all unscathed. But unlike Home Alone, which was all slapstick and no charm, Mouse Hunt really tickles because it doesn’t rely merely on this kind of physical humor that has no consideration of reality.

No, Mouse Hunt has a nice sense of the absurd, too, from the delightfully spooky Randolf Smuntz (William Hickey) we meet in flashbacks to the heavies from cord conglomerate Zeppco who are trying to buy out Smuntz String to the city pound — where Ernie and Lars venture to find a mouser cat — that is right out of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. There are throwaway references to DreamWorks’ rivalry with Disney — listen closely for Nathan Lane’s offhand allusion to The Lion King. (Of course, the whole movie could be taken as a swipe at Disney and its famous rodent.) And Christopher Walken almost walks away with the movie as Caesar, the bizarre exterminator hired to off the mouse.

If Warner Brothers were making animated movies in the vein of the great old Bugs Bunny cartoons, Mouse Hunt could slide right into that lineup. I sucked up all those Merrie Melodies cartoons as a kid, and it didn’t seem to do me any harm (that’s debatable, I suppose) — though when I watch them now I’m surprised I didn’t wonder then about the adult sensibility and humor. Of course, the Warner ‘toons are even more fun now, and I’ve always wished for more of them. So few entertainment-makers seem to understand the difference between silly and stupid (Pinky and the Brain is silly; Nick Freno is stupid), that the former is admirable and the latter execrable.

Mouse Hunt is most definitely silly. For which I am very grateful.

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