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Tiny Terror

Imagine Macaulay Culkin as a three-inch rodent with no personality, and you've pretty much nailed the thing.

Mouse Hunt, the third movie to be released by DreamWorks Pictures, is Home Alone boiled down to grim, humorless destruction, with a nameless mouse as the tormentor. Seen another way, it's Tom and Jerry as envisioned by Franz Kafka.

In any case, this rather pompous exercise in anti-Disney style fancies itself too damn clever (it invokes Hitler, Nostradamus, even "The Charterhouse of Parma") to be just another kiddie picture. But it's not "adult" enough to hold any reasonably intelligent grownup's interest. Welcome, then, to audience limbo--a dank, dour thing, shot in bleak horror-movie tones, in which a tiny defender of the realm looses its mayhem on two nasty, bungling brothers. It takes place in a decrepit house that the oily Smuntz brothers, Ernie and Lars (Nathan Lane and Lee Evans), have just inherited and discovered to be a lost architectural masterpiece. But when they try to fix up the place and auction it off for millions, the incumbent scurrying along the floorboards heartily objects.

By the end, the mouse has put a huge, mangy cat to rout, terrorized an obsessive exterminator (who else but obsessive Christopher Walken?) and reduced the brothers to burbling idiots soaked in black sewage, with sprung mousetraps clipped to their every appendage. The house lies in ruins, as much the victim of the brothers' greed as the mouse's stubborn territorialism.

Clearly, rookie director Gore Verbinski--the guy who originated those Budweiser frog commercials--has absorbed the collected works of Terry Gilliam, the hotel hell of Barton Fink and, if I don't miss my guess, Caro and Jeunet's gloomy fantasy Delicatessen. Every face and thing in this wrongheaded children's movie looks grimy in a highly stylized way; every emotion seems dulled by cynicism; every motive is sour.

Meanwhile, Verbinski tells us, "the mouse doesn't have a character arc." That's UCLA Film School talk for the fact that the main character isn't cute and has no apparent traits other than hunger and self-preservation. It's a rodent, pure and simple. (Actually, it's a combination of real mice, a mouse-robot and a computer-generated image.) Verbinski and writer Adam Rifkin seem so afraid of schmaltzing things up--of appearing uncool--that they never let kids bond with their mouse; they're too busy winking at the grownups in the house and tossing off inside jokes the eight-year-olds don't get. This works for Bugs Bunny cartoons and it works for The Simpsons, but Mouse Hunt misses the mark. If these filmmakers have any idea what they're doing here--or for whom--they aren't letting us in on it.--Gallo

Mouse Hunt. Screenplay by Adam Rifkin. Directed by Gore Verbinski. With Nathan Lane, Lee Evans, Vicki Lewis and Christopher Walken.

10

 
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