Mouse Hunt
directed by Gore Verbinski
(DreamWorks, 1997)

Animation great Chuck Jones once said there was only one plot to all the Looney Tunes he ever made: A guy tackles what should be the simplest task in the world, and fails. So it was that Wile E. Coyote never caught the Roadrunner, and Elmer Fudd couldn't hit Bugs Bunny even when Bugs was leaning on Elmer's gun.

Few live-action films have ever come close to recreating Jones' scenario; Mouse Hunt does, in part by reuniting two live-action cartoon characters, Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella.

Lane and Sabella are Broadway performers who have years of experience and resumes you could wallpaper a house with. But they might be best remembered as the voices of Pumba and Timon, the wart hog-meerkat combo that peppered The Lion King with witty comments and witless doings.

In Mouse Hunt Lane and Sabella have come to life, but their modus operandi is the same: clever dialogue on the heels of not-so-clever doings, most involving attempts by Ernie and Lars Smuntz to evict a mouse from the house their father left them.

What they're doing in the house and why they so desperately need to evict its only resident is part of a labyrinthian plot Jones never would have had world enough or time to develop.

The Smuntz's father, a string-obsessed immigrant entrepreneur, has willed his sons a hopelessly outmoded twine factory, which Ernie (Lane) wants to sell. He's stopped by his brother Lars (Lee Evans), who wants to run the factory in accordance with his father's wishes.

But life quickly bottoms out for both Smuntzes when the mayor-elect chokes to death on a cockroach in Ernie's restaurant and Lars' wife tosses him out for refusing a generous offer for Smuntz String.

Their only hope is to sell the house, which may be worth millions, to someone like Maury (Sabella) -- if only they can get rid of the mouse.

That complicated scenario is just one of the problems that plagues Mouse Hunt. Another is that it draws too heavily on dud duo films like Home Alone, with sight gags that make the Three Stooges' antics seem subtle.

The worst of these involves the title rodent hooking a vacuum cleaner nozzle to a sewer line. The joke stinks, literally, and is unnecessary when you have performers of Lane's caliber on hand.

Much funnier are routines involving the mouser, aptly named Catzilla, that Ernie and Lars pick up at the pound, and Christopher Walken as an exterminator with more hardware than True Value and better weaponry than the Pentagon -- for as all Chuck Jones fans know, the bigger they are, the harder the laughs.

With all this going on, it's easy to miss some of the finer moments in Mouse Hunt, such as Lars' version of his reconciliation with his wife -- "We made love in a way I've only ever seen in nature films" -- or Ernie's description of the object of his disaffection: "He's not a mouse. He's Hitler with a tail."

Mouse Hunt is a grab bag, and some of the routines may not grab you. The storyline is too complex for the subject matter, and the water-logged finale is definitely over the top.

But any film that puts funny words in Lane's mouth can't be all bad, and any film that pits him against his old pal Pumba is performing a public service. Even when it doesn't quite succeed.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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