It’s difficult enough to make a successful film sequel, even harder when not working with a beloved children’s story by E.B. White, as did the original Stuart Little (1999). Stuart Little 2 suffers for not having White’s guiding influence (save for having characters that are “based on” his). And in the end, the movie does very little with these characters, focusing its attention instead on action and adventure.
Stuart Little 2 opens with an action sequence in the form of a soccer game. It’s more adventurous than any regular little kids’ game of soccer, because our favorite mouse, Stuart (voice of Michael J. Fox), is playing, and in addition to being about as big as the other players’ feet, Stuart is much smaller than the soccer ball. His adoptive human mother (Geena Davis) is extremely nervous about the game, wishing her mouse son would stay away from dangerous sports and focus on dance or art, anything where Stuart is less likely to be squashed.
This first scene establishes some standard family dynamics, wherein Mom is overprotective and Dad (Hugh Laurie) recommends more freedom for his son. And Stuart is itching for more freedom; just because he’s a mouse in a human world doesn’t mean he should suffocate under an overbearing mother, or so he thinks. But if Mom isn’t entirely wrong (Stuart could be killed by something as harmless to a human kid as a stray soccer ball), this trite gendered dynamic asks us repeatedly to side with Dad and Stuart. We wouldn’t want Stuart to become some sort of a mama’s boy, after all.
As if to underline the familiarity of all this, the film reunites the original’s cast: in addition to Fox, Davis, and Laurie, Jonathan Lipnicki returns as the eldest Little son, George, and Nathan Lane as the family’s wisecracking kitty Snowbell, only this time he’s in league with Stuart rather than trying to run him out of the house. Newcomers include a Little baby girl, Martha (played by twins Ashley and Anna Hoelck), who is more of a prop than a character. Her apparent function — besides being oh so cute — is to position Stuart as a stereotypical middle child: he feels neglected even in the most loving of families.
And there’s a little yellow bird Margalo (Melanie Griffith), who befriends Stuart just as the mouse is feeling left out of George’s human world. The two come together in a dramatic car chase scene (Stuart drives a small model car to and from school) when Stuart sees the little bird trying to flee an evil falcon named Falcon (James Woods).
The story follows the friendship and developing interspecies romance of Stuart and Margalo. She is hiding some important secrets from Stuart, leading to double-crossing, adventure, and a series of highly unlikely events. Much of the film is filled with chase scenes, on foot, in model planes, in cars, and with the aforementioned birds in flight. There is not much time for the sweet absurdity that made Stuart Little so charming. (Apparently, everyone’s over the strangeness of the premise — that a human family should adopt a tiny white talking mouse and raise him as their son).
SL2 is kind of a kids’ intro to the themes of film noir, complete with a duplicitous dame, a heavy, a jewel theft, and an imaginary New York peppered with deep shadows and glimmering lights. That’s not say it isn’t bright and lovely, too. In fact, the film is beautiful to watch, capturing the bittersweet tone of an idealized world that never was: a host of New Yorkers in Central Park wear color-coordinated clothing (the Littles always seem to be color-coordinated); the Littles still dwell in a charming row house with a garden, wedged between two skyscrapers; a mouse can fall in love with a bird.
Even so, despite its visual beauty, Stuart Little 2 is trying too hard to fit into too many genres: adventure, family melodrama, noir, and comedy — and to be kid-friendly as well. The ads trumpet, “You’re as big as you feel.” With all the incessant action, SL2 feels like it’s trying to be bigger than it is.