See, now, this is how to make a sequel. Just a couple of weeks after releasing the disappointing Men in Black II, Columbia follows up with Stuart Little 2, a thoroughly entertaining family film that’s smarter, funnier, more heartfelt, and more exciting than the amiable 1999 original.
Remarkably, Stuart Little 2 manages to be both more satisfying for adults and more kid-friendly than the original. Older viewers will appreciate the sequel’s stronger story and witty script; and even little kids who might have found the original film’s menacing Central Park gangster cats too intense may be able to watch this film’s villainous falcon without fear of bad dreams. (Not only the menace but also the language is milder in this film than in Stuart Little, which unnecessarily threw in a couple of curse words that the sequel avoids.)
Like its predecessor, Stuart Little 2 is only loosely connected to the 1945 children’s story by E. B. White. White, of course, wrote no sequel to Stuart Little — though if ever a story cried out to be continued, it was that one, which simply trails off without a satisfactory resolution.
These two movies, however, follow another tack entirely. They’re less adapted from the book than built around homages to it. Individual events are taken from White’s story; e.g., Stuart (Michael J. Fox) goes down a drain after a ring, meets a bird named Margalo (Melanie Griffith) who later disappears, and gets stranded on a garbage scow. However, the order, context, and meaning of each of these events has been completely revised, so that it’s no longer remotely the same story. Not being a great fan of the book, I enjoyed the films — especially the sequel — without the slightest pangs of purist resentment.
Stuart Little 2 builds on the first film, but doesn’t require the viewer to have seen it. "Spunky mouse lives in New York with cheery human family and histrionic cat" is about all you need to know. Geena Davis and Hugh Laurie are back as Stuart’s parents, with little Jonathan Lipnicki as Stuart’s older brother George. There’s also a new Little, baby Martha (played by twins Anna and Ashley Hoelck).
In the first film, the main impression created by the Little clan was of quirky retro unhipness and preternatural good cheer. In the sequel, Stuart’s parents still have their colorful retro quirkiness (compare to Jimmy Neutron’s parents), but they also reveal a more endearing and charming side, and make their family life genuinely appealing. When Mr. Little compliments his wife’s appearance one morning as she’s feeding the baby breakfast, her chipper response is, "Well, some people just know how to wear oatmeal." Later, in a bedtime exchange of "Brady Bunch"-level parental cuteness, a comment from Mr. Little about youthful infatuation prompts his wife to ask him whether he had many crushes, to which of course he replies sweetly, as they turn off the light: "I’m still having one."
At the same time, Stuart Little 2 effectively balances
its sweetness with acid wit and clever asides for the
The storyline ties together Margalo, Mrs. Little’s missing ring, and Stuart’s garbage-scow voyage into a new plot pitting Stuart against a predatory falcon (James Woods) — a conflict that has the kid-empowering appeal of stories like Jack the Giant-Killer or David and Goliath.
First-time screenwriter Douglas Wick, who co-produced the original film, adds a number of clever twists (my favorite involves the garbage scow). It’s not entirely without drawbacks: The story at times suffers from minor idiot-plot moments (ie., all relevant characters ignore an obvious solution), as well as mild instances of the sort of crude humor (groin trauma, references to poop) so pervasive in kid movies (though quite minor as these things go). Yet in the end the resolution is so satisfying that these flaws are easily forgiven.
Besides standard platitudes about looking on the bright side and having confidence in yourself, Stuart Little 2 deals with the moral issues of lying (and, to a lesser degree, stealing) versus honesty and integrity. A significant plot point depends on Stuart’s brother George lying to their parents concerning Stuart’s whereabouts. Predictably, this lie leads to an escalating series of lies that leaves George unhappy and stressed: "I’ve never lied to my parents before," he explains to a friend, whose significant reply is: "That’s why they believe you." Ironically, while George may be technically correct about never lying to his parents before, he did pave the way for his present predicament by first asking Stuart to tell a lie on his behalf, illustrating how one compromise leads to another.
When Stuart’s parents learn the truth, their response is refreshingly direct. Not only does Mr. Little make it totally clear to George that "it is never okay to lie to your parents," when George counters by suggesting that he’s bound by his promise to his brother, his mother brushes this aside: "It was wrong to promise your brother to lie to us." Afterwards, having made a full confession, George ventures to ask whether he is in trouble. "No, son," Mr. Little replies firmly. "You are in big trouble."
Stuart’s own wrongdoing, unfortunately, is lost in the happy ending; his parents point out his offenses, but are too proud of him to be angry, or even to gesture in the direction of any later reckoning. Nevertheless, the message that Lying is Bad comes across with welcome clarity (contrast this spring’s dubious family movie Big Fat Liar, which couldn’t commit to anything stronger than "The Truth Isn’t Overrated").
The movie looks terrific, too. As with the first film, director Rob Minkoff (The Lion King) makes excellent use of his New York setting, and the special effects are so well-done that at times you actually forget you’re watching special effects. Breezy pop songs enhance the bouncy mood, and at 72 minutes Stuart Little 2 never wears out its welcome. If only all sequels were this good.
Competently directed by Gary Winick (13 Going on 30), the film basically sticks to the plot of the book, and the story’s essential charm is echoed in the film. At the same time, the film also dumbs down White with excursions into gimmicky broad humor and bestiary slapstick — something the makers of Babe found unnecessary to do.
Just as no writer or editor can do without a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, so no child’s library is complete without one or more of the latter writer’s beloved trilogy of children’s books: Stuart Little (1945), Charlotte’s Web (1952), and Trumpet of the Swan (1970).
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.