Old Man Smuntz (William Hickey) is dead. He is survived by two sons, the innocent Lars (Lee Evans), and the greedy Ernie (Nathan Lane). To them, Old Man Smuntz has bequeathed his legacy: a broken-down string factory, several worthless knick-knacks, and an old house.
At first, the brothers ignore the house, but after a convoluted series of circumstances teach them that the old place might actually be worth something, the two begin an extensive restoration project in anticipation of huge profits at the upcoming auction.
However, they're not alone in the house. A small little mouse has claimed the decaying structure as his home. And as the brothers battle to remove the vermin, the resourceful little rodent proves that he's the one with the brains.
Unfortunately, when a mouse is the smartest thing you've got going for you in a movie, you're in trouble. Mousehunt does have some cute spots when the mouse is onscreen, but when he's not (which is the case for an unbearably large portion of the film), the film grinds to a tediously boring halt.
The problem is with the humans. As much as Nathan Lane and Lee Evans try, their incessant mugging doesn't make for interesting characters. When they're simply acting as cartoony foils against the mouse, their depth is sufficient, but when the film asks them to carry its full weight, they instantly collapse.
The film never lets us understand where our sympathies should lie. At first, the Smuntz brothers are objects of pity, hoping for that one big break in life. However, when the mouse appears, the Smuntzes metamorphosize into villains. And their obsession with destroying the mouse is never fully understood. Sure, it's a nuisance. Sure, they don't like being outwitted by a rodent. But neither of those explanations truly excuses the lengths that they will go.
But several of those lengths are pretty funny. Catzilla and the obsessive pest control man, Caesar (Christopher Walken), have particularly funny bits. The computer generated mice blend well with the trained ones, and make for some interesting mouse tricks.
Director Gore Verbinski, of Budweiser frogs fame, creates a few visually interesting scenes. Even when the stylistic touches seem inappropriate, it is nice to know that at least someone was trying something new with the film, rather than simply sticking with a preset formula.
But in the end, Mouse Hunt never quite works. As a cartoon, the film succeeds on those terms. But too often it tries for more, and fails.
[PG - language, comic sensuality and mayhem] (Dreamworks SKG)