Stuart Little (1999)

by Renee Scolaro Rathke


All About Your Desire

First, a confession: I didn’t go see Stuart Little because I was asked to write a review of it. I’m not a parent, and I didn’t take along any nieces, nephews, or any of my friends’ kids. I saw Stuart Little because I loved the E.B. White classic as a child. Well, that, and because that mouse looked so terminally cute in his little sailor suit in the commercial — I admit, I had to see more. And if I had any small amount of embarrassment as a 30-year-old woman seeing a kids’ movie without any kids in tow, it quickly dissipated as I saw many other adults without children in the theater: In fact, when I saw Stuart Little, there were almost no kids in the theater at all.

Okay, so maybe that’s because I saw it at 8:00 pm on a school night. But the point is that this film is arguably just as appealing to adults as it is to children. While this can be said of many so-called kids’ movies (this coming from someone who saw A Bug’s Life at least 10 times of her own volition), I think it’s particularly true of this film because of the book on which it’s based: almost every adult I know loves Stuart Little.

cover art

Stuart Little

Director: Robert Minkoff
Cast: Michael J. Fox, Geena Davis, Jonathan Lipnicki, Hugh Davies, Nathan Lane, Chazz Palminteri

(Columbia Pictures)

For me, part of the attraction was Stuart’s littleness — the same thing that made me wish the Borrowers were real and that a secret, tiny world existed where a spool of thread was a sitting stool and a dime was the size of a hoola-hoop. Alternative perspectives like these play into the popularity of White’s stories: we get to see what our human world looks like from a mouse’s point of view (or a spider’s or swan’s, if you prefer Charlotte’s Web or The Trumpet of the Swan). And then, Stuart is such a classy little mouse, living at the edge of Central Park, dapperly dressed, sailing schooners, tooling around in a yellow roadster. A perfect gentleman who’s only a few inches tall — how can one help but love him?

Of course, Stuart’s class is no small issue, as he occupies a very specific social space. E.B. White firmly ensconces Stuart in a position of privilege: He is white (literally, a white mouse and a member of a white family), male, and if not wealthy, at least well-to-do. Stuart Little, the text, speaks to two very specific audiences, one that inhabits Stuart’s privileged world and one that aspires to or dreams of it.

In the film, the Littles’ social position is maintained, but aside from this premise — and Stuart’s mouseness — the movie departs from the book’s plot details, for instance, the fact that Mrs. Little actually gives birth to the mouse Stuart. The movie changes this so that Mr. and Mrs. Little (Hugh Davies and Geena Davis) adopt their second child, keeping in mind their son George’s (Jonathan Lipnicki, of Jerry Maguire fame) request for a brother. George starts out to be a bit of a spoiled brat, not the least demonstration of which is this “shopping” trip for a new brother and permanent playmate.

The film opens with George heading off to school, telling his parents not to forget what he wants. It’s initially unclear where Mr. and Mrs. Little are headed (they seem to be headed to a store) and then the film cuts to a shot of them arriving underneath a huge sign, “NYC Public Orphanage No. 3.” At the orphanage, the Littles meet Stuart (Michael J. Fox: nothing against him, but why was this child mouse given the voice of a 40-year-old man?). Despite the orphanage’s discouragement against interspecies adoption, the Littles decide to take him home as the newest and littlest Little.

One wonders at the decision to alter the particulars of Stuart’s arrival into the family. After all, adopting a suit-wearing, teeth-brushing, talking mouse is hardly less fantastic a notion than giving birth to one, in my mind. Perhaps the filmmakers worried that at a time when genetic manipulation — such as cloning and gender selection — is creating controversy, that the audience would be repelled, or even frightened, by the idea of interspecies procreation. The decision to have the Littles adopt Stuart allows the filmmakers to dodge this issue completely.

What the adoption allows the film to explore more thoroughly is its predominant theme, which is, quite simply, a lesson in embracing diversity. The whole Little clan, and George in particular, must learn to accept Stuart as a true Little, to deny his difference and see him as they do themselves, an undisputed member of the family, even though he doesn’t look anything like them. This being the moral of the story, it makes sense to go the adoption route because it so completely separates Stuart from the Littles and therefore makes the test of acceptance more challenging. With Stuart born into the family, as he is in White’s original text, he inherits all the rights that go along with being a Little. With adoption, his legal and emotional position is more tenuous.

More significant, though, is the orphanage’s warning against “interspecies adoption.” While funny in its own right, it also points to a secondary theme, interracial adoption. It’s worth noting that a film whose “lesson” is accepting diversity is so thoroughly white: Not a single other ethnicity besides a white one was to be found represented anywhere, unless you want to count the mafioso-type alley cats led by the vicious Smokey (typecast Chazz Palminteri). And I wonder if it isn’t just a tad problematic that the locus of “diversity” in this film is a white mouse (and one voiced by Fox, who remains, after all these years, inseparable from the young Republican Alex P. Keaton). This lack of representation is relevant because of that major theme: the movie asks its audience (adults and children alike) to embrace diversity, but it doesn’t show it at a human level. Given that it takes place in New York City, how hard would it have been to include a black or Latino person with a speaking part?

Then again, in a film that showcases talking animals, bestowing specific ethnic characteristics on them can be a tricky business, running the risk of gross stereotyping (the alley cats here certainly are Godfather-esque). And if the team that put together Stuart Little was unable to represent ethnic diversity without stereotyping, perhaps it was better left alone: let’s face it, no one wants to see those horribly offensive crows from Dumbo or the hyenas from The Lion King resurrected.

Despite these shortcomings, the lesson is resolved as it should be — with acceptance. After questioning why he doesn’t look like the rest of the family and expressing that he feels “an empty space” inside, Stuart is reluctantly returned to his supposed birth-parents, Mr. and Mrs. Stout. Compared to the Littles, the Stouts are decidedly low-rent, and we all feel sorry for Stuart when he ends up living in a “castle” on a putt-putt golf course. Again, class issues arise: Stuart would be better off living with his adoptive parents in the nice house near Central Park than here!

But the plot absolves us from any guilt at thinking this: the Stouts, it turns out, are imposters paid to get rid of Stuart by the Littles’ jealous cat, Snowbell (a hilarious Nathan Lane). Stuart’s birth parents were killed, it’s explained, in a rather unfortunate Cream of Mushroom soup accident (a tower of cans of the stuff collapsed on them in a grocery store). It’s a weird moment for the viewer as we are relieved that Stuart’s real parents have died and that the Stouts are fakes and that Stuart can go back to the Littles’s home. In the end, all’s as well as can be expected: even Snowbell seems content with being a mouse’s pet cat.

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