M. Night Shyamalan just can't resist a nontraditional family. As the writer and director of The Sixth Sense, the Philadelphian hotshot assembled the year's most memorable cinematic portrayal of a single-parent household. In adapting the E.B. White children's classic "Stuart Little," Shyamalan (who shares scripting credit with Greg Brooker) shifts his focus to the time-honored struggle of adopted children to reconcile their unknown origins with their agency-provided surroundings. But is it any wonder that the same man who supplied a mother-and-son duo with an extended brood of haunts would choose to interpret one of the most enchantingly bizarre adoption fantasies in kids' literature?
The contrast between live action and computer animation plays up the inherent incongruities in the life of Stuart, a pipsqueak waif who's repeatedly referred to in the film's script as "something like a mouse." Actually, he is a mouse, but neither his adoptive dad (Hugh Laurie) nor mother (Geena Davis) is coarse enough to point that out. The heads of the Little family, they're overjoyed to liberate tiny Stuart from an orphanage full of human kids and transplant him into their tweed-and-polyester world of middle-class bliss.
The Littles' natural son, George (Jonathan Lipnicki), is slower to accept a rodent into his otherwise normal home. Eventually, even he warms to Stuart's midget charms, just in time for a new challenge to arrive in the form of Reginald and Camille Stout (Bruno Kirby and Jennifer Tilly), two mice who claim to be Stuart's real parents. Poverty, they say, forced them to give the boy up; they simply couldn't afford to feed him.
"Couldn't feed him? How much could he eat?" George assails, in absurdist vindication of the bruised feelings of castoff children everywhere.
The exaggerated friction in these scenes would carry more heft if the living, breathing characters were nearly as watchable as the desktop-created ones. It's not the fault of Laurie and Davis that their Mr. and Mrs. Little come across as cardboard cutouts: They're written that way, intended only to serve as virtuous facilitators for a series of whimsical setups. Stuart gets trapped in a washing machine! Stuart buys dolls' clothes for his winter wardrobe! Stuart pilots a model boat to a tournament championship!
The owner of that boat is George, who's supposed to be the most fully realized of Stuart's bipedal relatives, progressing from resentment of his new sibling to grudging acceptance to brotherly love. But Lipnicki mutes the drama with a robotic performance that's as patently two-dimensional as child acting gets. What this family really needs is a Haley Joel Osment.
Even Stuart leaves something to be desired as a central figure. Though he's indisputably a visual marvel -- full of expressive gestures and soulful gazes -- his wide-eyed innocence wears thin after a while. Perpetually trusting and showing not a whiff of underlying anger under the most soul-testing of circumstances, he's too much of a milquetoast (or should it be "cheesetoast?") to fully identify with. Being voiced by the meek Michael J. Fox (once described by singer Mojo Nixon as "the anti-Elvis" for his lack of chutzpah) doesn't help.
Adults will find more amusement in the cast of sardonic cats who prowl through the story. Nathan Lane provides the voice of Snowbell, a family pet who's jealous of Stuart's cushy lifestyle. (A mouse who sleeps in his own bed? It's a slap in the face!) For revenge, Snowbell enlists the aid of Smokey (Chazz Palminteri), a bewhiskered Mafioso who commands a gang of street-tough goodfelines. In one of the script's more clever asides, his lieutenants refer to the deadly Smokey as the "cato de tutti catti."
Such toothsome dialogue rescues "Stuart Little" from its frequent dips into the realm of the innocuous. Almost as commendable is Shyamalan's refusal to explain away the funhouse logic of White's story, counting on us to trust that mice can wind up in foster homes, pose for family portraits and preen in front of teensy bathroom mirrors without anyone batting an eyelash. No matter how odd they may look from the outside, the writer knows, alternative families are here to stay.