"Stuart Little 2" is true to its name twice over. It's a little movie (78 minutes, including more than five minutes of credits) intended for little people. But, more than the last time around, it has elements that might help divert those bigger people who find themselves unavoidably in attendance.
For one thing, the adventures of the 3-inch mouse who walks like a man now have more visual flair, including a particular emphasis on flying. The use of a new piece of technology called a SpyderCam, unleashed from a 200-ton crane placed on the roof of a New York hotel, re-creates the feeling of birds and miniature airplanes swooping daringly over Central Park.
The addition of a pair of birds to "Stuart 2's" cast of characters is also a plus. Both admirably voiced, they are Margalo (Melanie Griffith), a flirtatious avian free spirit brought over from E.B. White's original book, and Falcon (James Woods), a nasty predator who warns cohorts, "Never make a friend I can eat." Stuart himself, voiced by the wonderful Michael J. Fox, appears to better advantage here, and not just because he has an extremely spiffy wardrobe (14 costume changes, all digitally tailored and designed by Mona May).
Though it's hard to know how seriously to take producer Douglas Wick's assertion that this film's goal was "to give Stuart more of a character arc" than the first picture allowed, he's sort of right. Freed from the burden of setting up Stuart's world, this film, written by Bruce Joel Rubin and directed once again by Rob Minkoff, gives freer rein to Stuart's enthusiastic personality.
A curious byproduct of this improvement is that by comparison, "Stuart 2's" on-screen humans are even harder to take than they were in the original. Granted that the characters of Mr. and Mrs. Little (Hugh Laurie and Geena Davis) are so toweringly sappy there's probably no good way to play them, there's really no excuse for them to seem less real than a bunch of computer-generated animals.
One of those animals, the white Persian cat Snowbell (voiced by Nathan Lane), is almost as much of a drag as the Littles. This animal's stand-up comic one-liners ("Look what I'm reduced to, a Handi Wipe with hair") are probably intended as a sop to the parents in the crowd, but the script's painful wisecracks clash with the tone of innocence the film is mostly concerned with projecting.
"Stuart 2's" plot has two main thrusts, the least interesting one involving Mrs. Little's tendency to be overprotective and not allow Stuart room to grow psychologically. Or something.
Stuart's older brother George (the reliable Jonathan Lipnicki) is spending more time with his friends, so Stuart feels a bit abandoned and in need of a new pal.
One promptly falls into his lap, or at least into the seat of his car, when wounded bird Margalo, fetching in an Amelia Earhart-style aviator cap, takes refuge with Stuart as she tries to escape the attacks of Falcon.
Stuart gets an instant crush on Margalo and asks the Littles if she can move in (chastely, of course. What were you thinking?). Margalo dreams of flying south, but the fact that she enjoys watching Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" should be a hint that this bird is not all she seems.
Like many modern children's films, "Stuart Little 2" can't decide between teaching good values ("You're only as big as you feel") and tossing out fake-hip jokes. Though it doesn't happen as often as it should, this is a better film when it allows itself simply to be sweet.
MPAA rating: PG, for brief mild language. Times guidelines: more tension and jeopardy than the smallest viewers might expect.
'Stuart Little 2'
Michael J. Fox...Stuart Little
Geena Davis...Mrs. Little
Hugh Laurie...Mr. Little
Columbia Pictures presents a Douglas Wick/Lucy Fisher Production, a Franklin/Waterman production, released by Sony Pictures. Director Rob Minkoff. Producers Lucy Fisher, Douglas Wick. Executive producers Jeff Franklin, Steve Waterman, Rob Minkoff, Gail Lyon, Jason Clark. Screenplay by Bruce Joel Rubin, story by Douglas Wick and Bruce Joel Rubin, based on characters from the book "Stuart Little" by E.B. White. Cinematographer Steven Poster. Editor Priscilla Nedd Friendly. Costume designer Mona May. Music Alan Silvestri. Production designer Bill Brzeski. Art director Shepherd Frankel. Set decorator Lisa K. Sessions. Running time: 1 hour, 18 minutes.
In general release.