Is This Mouse Going to Roar?


He has a winsome smile, wears dapper clothes and loves to ham it up for the camera, but turning a 3 1/2-inch computer-created mouse named Stuart Little into a movie star will take all the cunning and creativity the marketing team at Sony Pictures Entertainment can muster.

Confidence remains high on Sony’s Culver City lot as Columbia Pictures prepares for Friday’s roll-out of “Stuart Little,” a film based on the classic E.B. White book that combines live action with state-of-the-art visual effects.

But Sony has much riding on the outcome of “Stuart Little,” the studio’s first attempt at computer animation. The film is estimated to have cost more than $100 million and will be competing for family business over the holidays with Disney/Pixar’s blockbuster hit “Toy Story 2.”


“Stuart Little” comes at the end of a rough year for Sony, one with notable critical and box office disappointments. The studio had one true blockbuster in the Adam Sandler comedy “Big Daddy” and a modest hit with the action comedy “Blue Streak.” But it also released a string of clunkers like “The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc,” “Jakob the Liar,” “Dick” and “Idle Hands.”

The sluggish performance of such films is baffling, Hollywood observers say, given the considerable brain trust led by Sony Pictures Entertainment Chief Executive John Calley and Columbia President Amy Pascal, who, in particular, has been closely identified with “Stuart Little,” championing the project for months. A successful launch of the film could quiet critics who believe that her slate of films this year has been underwhelming.

Leaving nothing to chance, Columbia began promoting “Stuart Little” in the spring, when the first TV spot appeared during the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards. In mid-June, the studio attached a poster and teaser trailer to “Big Daddy.” In early November, the regular theatrical trailer began appearing at showings of “Pokemon: The First Movie,” the huge animated hit released by Warner Bros.

“Our fingers are firmly crossed,” said Gareth Wigan, co-vice chairman of Columbia-TriStar Motion Picture Group, who noted that he always argued against Sony’s getting into animation because it is so costly and because Disney’s animated movies are so brilliant that it is hard to compete.

But Wigan said his views changed after seeing Stuart evolve.

“I felt excited about this project because it was really different,” he said. “It was a fully realized electronic character interacting with real live characters.”

Still, launching a new character like Stuart, especially one rooted in modern literature, is fraught with peril. Not only must the studio avoid alienating Stuart’s loyal baby boomer fan base, which has treasured White’s book for decades, it also must not turn off mass audiences by suggesting that Stuart’s character is too highbrow. It must also appeal to young boys, who may be turned off by the characters “softer” appeal.


“It’s a launch that has to be handled with a lot of care because you are dealing here with what many people consider a classic literary property,” said Martin Brochstein, executive editor of the Licensing Letter, a New York-based newsletter that covers the consumer product licensing business.

“Something like this is a potential franchise that could be a good revenue producer,” Brochstein said, “but it’s a tightrope to walk. You can’t have those people with warm and fuzzy feelings toward the book feel that their trust has been violated and a wonderful property bastardized. Could this be a steady kind of franchise? Absolutely. But on the order of Looney Tunes or Mickey Mouse? Highly doubtful.”

Brochstein said he doesn’t think “Stuart Little” as a property is as well known as Sony originally believed. “I have 16-year-old twins,” he said. “My daughter, when I mentioned the film, said, ‘Oh, I remember that book.’ But my son had no recollection.”

Augmenting Sony’s challenge with “Stuart Little” is the gnawing reality that young moviegoers are more likely to flock to films that feature animated characters they already know--”Pokemon the First Movie,” “The Rugrats Movie” and “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut”--or that are made under the Disney label--”Tarzan” and “Toy Story 2”--than to films with characters they don’t know.

Case in point: “The Iron Giant,” which Warner Bros. released in the summer to much critical acclaim, only to see the charming film sputter and crash at the box office.

Sony’s confidence in “Stuart Little” is rooted in what the film’s director, Rob Minkoff, and his crew at Sony Pictures Imageworks have managed to create on the computer screen with Stuart. “It’s not just whiskers and fur,” Wigan said. “It’s his personality.”


Producer Douglas Wick said the filmmakers have worked long and hard to create a computer-generated mouse that has all the intangibles that make human actors into movie stars.

“In the long germination of Stuart,” Wick said, “there was always a question of, ‘Gee, we are creating a protagonist for the movie, but we are also creating a leading man. Audiences better like hanging out with him for an hour and a half or we’ll be looking for other jobs.’ ”

In the film, Stuart (with a voice supplied by actor Michael J. Fox) is adopted by the Littles, a human family played by Geena Davis, Jonathan Lipnicki and Hugh Laurie.

With a mixture of spunk and cleverness, Stuart must not only adapt himself to his human family--winning over the Littles’ son, who wants a human brother not a rodent one--but also must deal with his nemesis, Snowball the cat.

Throughout his adventures, Stuart dresses up in a variety of human clothes, including a suit with accompanying high-top red sneakers, some red plaid pajamas, a sailor outfit and even a white dinner jacket with black tie. Sony has grand visions of Stuart evolving into a symbol of the studio, not unlike Mickey Mouse at Disney and Bugs Bunny at Warner Bros., generating a steady revenue stream from a line of toys, computer games and clothing.

The debut of “Stuart Little” comes at a difficult time for Sony, which is looking for its next blockbuster to follow summer’s “Big Daddy,” which grossed $163.5 million. Although the studio has generated more than $500 million in ticket sales this year, some of the studios bigger-budget films such as “Random Hearts” and “The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc” were disappointments at the box office.


To be sure, Sony has had considerable success developing consumer products from its movie properties in recent years, including “Men in Black” and “Godzilla.” For example, Godzilla merchandise has had worldwide sales of $450 million. But Godzilla is not exactly the kind of fuzzy, endearing creature a studio wants to build its corporate image around--even in Hollywood--and that film became a symbol of how a studio can bet too much on a character.

When it came to promotional tie-ins for “Stuart Little,” Sony found that fast-food outlets were reluctant to get involved with an untested character.

“There is always a nervousness on the part of big franchises to commit to a movie, because a movie makes it on Friday night or it doesn’t,” Sony’s Wigan said. “It’s not difficult to commit to ‘Star Wars.’ McDonald’s already has an exclusive deal [on ‘Toy Story 2’] with Disney. Burger King bet on ‘Pokemon.’ ”

Although there is no fast-food tie-in with Stuart this Christmas, Sony believes it struck gold when it forged a promotional alliance with RadioShack. The electronics retailer is the exclusive outlet for the “Stuart Little” roadster, a vintage cherry-red radio-controlled car modeled after the tiny vehicle Stuart drives in the film.

Bob Levin, who heads worldwide marketing at Sony, said that for “Stuart Little” to receive a successful launch requires an “all systems go” marketing approach.

“First, you have to have a really entertaining movie that audiences are going to like, which we think we have,” Levin said. “And, if you start talking about franchise, you look for a character who has a longer life [than one movie].”


Sony said it has no plans to saturate the marketplace this Christmas with “Stuart Little” toys. Instead, toys will be available chiefly through upscale and specialty outlets like FAO Schwarz and on the Internet through eToys and But most of the merchandise won’t arrive until early next year. Why the wait?

“The movie launches Dec. 17,” said Peter Dang, executive vice president of Sony Worldwide Consumer Products. “If you launch it as Christmas merchandise, by Dec. 26 everything would be old. . . . What you don’t want to do is have so much stuff out there [in stores], because if it doesn’t move, all of a sudden the retailer says, ‘Dead!’ Retailers are now so risk-averse.”

Dang said Hasbro is the master toy licensee with items ranging from “soft and cuddly toy animals” to a dancing Stuart and 5-inch soft pocket Stuarts.

In addition to Hasbro, Sony also has deals with Learning Curve to supply specialty stores with “Stuart Little” toys. Harper Collins, which published White’s original novel, is publishing a series of children’s books to coincide with the film’s release.