That Moment In MouseHunt (1997): Blown Sky High
Lars (Evans) and Ernie (Lane) haven’t been having a good run of late. A mishap at Ernie’s fancy restaurant, where a large cockroach found its way into the mayor’s meal, left Ernie jobless when the city official dropped dead of a heart attack. Lars, unbeknownst to his brother, turned down a huge offer for the family’s archaic string factory, which prompted his wife to kick him out. The good news is, they’ve inherited a house. A big house.
There are two good rules of thumb when inheriting property if it is a giant old mansion atop a treeless, spooky hill, and looks like the set of a B-grade slasher film from the nineteen eighties: (a) run away, fast and forever, or (b) take the first offer, no matter what it is, if someone wants to buy it. Something is most assuredly going to go terribly, horribly wrong. It’s a fact. It’s in every scriptwriter’s contract. Lars and Ernie suspect the place is a money trap when they give it a look, but when they learn it is the lost architectural masterpiece of one Charles Lyle LaRue, they hedge their bets and believe they are sitting on a fortune. When an interested party hints as spending 10 million dollars to acquire the home, the brothers begin work on restoring the manor to its original state.
That is until they realize the mansion isn’t entirely unoccupied. Not a ghost, as the rundown house appears quiet capable of supplying, but a tiny gray field mouse who has taken upon itself to be rid of people intruding into its home. At any cost. But this isn’t no run-of-the-mill gray field mouse. This one is, as Ernie comes to decide, not an ordinary mouse. It sets traps, uses tools, outwits opponents, and schemes elaborate plans that wreck havoc when unleashed. It is the Kevin McCAllister of rodents. In just a few days, it reduces the men to sniveling maniacs, desperate to rid themselves of the beast, buying a ravenous cats and hiring a peculiar pest controller to try and defeat their nemesis. To say it has the upper hand (paw?) is like saying one should light a birthday cake with a military grade flamethrower.
Directed by Gore Verbinski (of The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise), the film is a collection of pratfalls and Rube Goldberg-like traps that escalate to absurd proportions by film’s end, yet manages to have some fun along the way. Despite some clever camera work and an intriguing idea for story, the movie often can’t seem to find its way, never giving the audience anyone (or animal) to really root for. Should we side with the mouse–who is undeniably adorable, or with the hapless brothers–who are just trying to make a buck. Neither party is painted as especially evil, and there is never any clear indication for why the mouse is so adamant against human housemates . . . or how the heck it even got so darned smart! There isn’t any reason to care about anything or anyone, which probably doesn’t matter as the film is mostly a vehicle for making people look silly and having a mouse win the day. Maybe sometimes, that’s all a movie needs to be.
That Moment In: Mousehunt
The furry little menace has caused an unbelievable amount of damage to the already crumbling house. The radical exterminator the brothers called to eradicate the beast has met with disaster, ending up tied to a gurney and shipped off to the emergency room, beaten down, broken, and mumbling to himself. Lars and Ernie are at their wits end.
As the oddly cute rodent eludes capture and tricks its way through think and thin, stealing food and generally causing mischief, we the viewer are left wondering just exactly what is this mouse? It can plan, deduce, anticipate, use critical and higher thinking skills and seems entirely aware of its existence. It even sleeps in a bed with a blanket, keeps knick-knacks and, as evidenced by the giant wristwatch it has propped up next to his bed, has an understanding of time. It is never explained, and probably better that it isn’t, but it blissfully removes sense of reality and plops it firmly into fantasy, which is fine, but might have been funnier if the creature was just a mouse and happened to set up these incredible series of events by accident. As it is, the mouse clearly is on some vendetta and has no intention of letting it go. Why? We don’t know. It’s either a criminally-psychotic, possibly possessed, violent vermin with a penchant for pandemonium, or a just a cuddly mouse in the wrong place at the right time.
It’s what you believe that make the difference. For some reason, watching people who think they are smart be exposed as anything but is pretty darned fun. Even more so when they are the victims of outlandish traps that see them pummeled by cartoon hi-jinks. Cast iron fry pan to the face? Check. Fiery chimney explosion causing human rocket-like lift off rather than screaming, horrific, face-melting death? Check. Any doubt about where this film is heading is tossed into the lake, literally. The mouse is in charge and the humans are its playthings.
One has to wonder if, after this film was released, anyone bothered to call John Hughes and ask if he was considering legal action for having his story of an abandoned boy and two inept burglars recast as a mouse and two bungling brothers. Seriously. As much as I enjoy watching the little mouse run circles around Ernie and Lars, it is nearly impossible not to draw a straight, uninterrupted line to Home Alone, with little Kevin and his ingenious schemes to foil would-be home invaders Harry and Marv. A giant house and a lone defender constantly outsmarting two less than competent miscreants is a formula that worked spectacularly well for Hughes and it seems that the makers of MouseHunt decided it was their turn to head to the bank. With a rodent cast as the lead, he tricks out the mansion in an array of booby-traps and ambushes that deny not just the laws of physics but the natural world. That’s kinda what happened in Home Alone too.
While there are certainly some big differences in the films, and I have fun watching either, there are some striking similarities, most especially in the music. John Williams, who has created some of the most memorable scores in movie history, including Jaws, Indiana Jones and the Star Wars series lent his talents to Home Alone, while multiple award winning, and very talented composer Alan Silvestri (I love his work in Forrest Gump and Back to the Future) wrote the MouseHunt score. Now, I have no proof that Williams had any influence over Silvestri in the creation of the MouseHunt soundtrack, and aren’t suggesting that there was any devious goings-on, but surely Home Alone must have been playing in the background while Silvestri was busy writing his musical composition. Either that or a team of research experts was sticking Post-it note edits on the sheet music showing how auditory cues of previous positive experiences will induce positive reactions to current experiences (citation needed). Take a listen and judge for yourself. This is a collection of scenes cut side-by-side. I did no editing other than to line up the clips to make one continuous piece of music. Seriously.
MouseHunt has some genuinely funny moments even if they lack emotional connection and any definitively drawn protagonist. As set-pieces of design and execution, many of the stunts are highly imaginative and of inspired lunacy. A stage for elaborate intertwining complex and absurd concoctions, the house becomes, in a sense, a house of horrors, if it weren’t played up for laughs. In reality, those suffered at the whim of the maniacal mouse would be nothing more than a growing pile of perforated corpses populating every corner of the manor. Still, in the film’s universe, it works surprising well, and with the comedic talents of Nathan Lane and the woefully underrated Lee Evans (it is baffling that this guy didn’t become a huge star), the silliness is fun. They are a great pair and inject wild amounts of effort to bring the funny. Absolutely every shot is overdone and every head-turning, eye-rolling, limb-spinning reaction buries the needle on the exaggeration meter, but once that tone is set, the leads ride it like a rocket straight through the roof. You can’t fault their commitment. Even layered in sh*t, they keep a straight face and sell it, sell it, sell it. You’re either gonna hop on the rocket and enjoy the ride or miss the countdown altogether and wish you’d rented something else. For I, when I need a giggle, it works.
I especially like the bit with Christopher Walken, who is the surprise cameo (read his Great Character Moment here), playing a wacky pest exterminator with a truckload of gadgets and tools that will cause him more harm than good. He doesn’t bring anything new to the “Walken” school of acting, but he doesn’t need to. His quirky style fits well into this fantasy, and he’s funny to watch as he convinces the brothers that he knows how to outsmart the rodent. He fails spectacularly.
While I never understood if there was meant to be a broad message in the film, like Home Alone’s touching sentiment about the importance of family, the makers of MouseHunt seem intent on pushing one idea that never really made much sense: string.
While it is a central part of the film, and an amusing element of the conclusion, the idea of a single strand of worn out string as inspiration makes an appearance several times, even on the deathbed of the brother’s father. The great William Hickey, (to whom the film is dedicated) again playing a decrepit old man (made famous in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation), treats the thread as if it holds magical powers, which maybe it does, considering the mouse. He recites an odd verse, “A world without string is chaos,” which is shown in the final frame of the movie, suggesting it has some greater significance. It would be easy to make a science leap here and say it’s a play on string theory and chaos theory, which wouldn’t make much sense, as neither is connected to the other, but in a world where a genius mouse with working knowledge of physics and spatial intelligence handily defeats humans with almost no effort, it isn’t much of a stretch.
While not nearly as good as it could or even should have been, MouseHunt is a fun family film that delivers a few good laughs and some clever bits of humor. If it weren’t for the leads, it would have surely been much worse and once it decides to go off the rails, it steams ahead and joyfully never looks back. The battle of a mouse against two brothers can be a hard pill to swallow if you’re not in the right mood, and the conclusion, complete with a jab at Disney, is so wildly absurd, it may push some viewers too far, but for it’s creativity, sense of awe, and utter, unabashed commitment to the tail (see what I did there?), few can match it.