Mouse Hunt (1997)

Just about the only thing you'd describe as subtle in this comedy from the late '90s is its holiday setting, which - to be fair - is a bit ambiguous. The film definitely starts just before Christmas, though even that takes a little while to be established. Christmas Eve plays into the story in a fairly significant way, though we sort of breeze through the 25th itself. After that, the timeline gets a little muddled, though it certainly seems like virtually all of the movie would have to be set between Christmas and New Year's.

But I'm getting quite a bit ahead of myself. Let's start by acknowledging what I assume is obvious from the seemingly contradictory fact that this involves some pretty impressive talent yet has been virtually forgotten: it's not good.

That's not entirely accurate. Instead, let's say this really doesn't work, and most people without an interest in Gore Verbinski's filmography would be better off skipping it. This is Verbinski's first full-length movie, which goes a long way towards explaining both his involvement and the fact this includes some notably impressive set pieces incorporating a mix of practical and early digital effects. The scale here is a lot smaller than, say, the sequences he included in the Pirates movies, but there's a similar approach to treating mayhem like a Rube Goldberg machine. It's impressive, particularly considering this is ostensibly a wacky kid's movie.

But impressive isn't the same as good, and the discrepancy between the two may in part be due to Verbinski prioritizing what he wants to film over the needs of the film. Mouse Hunt, at its core, should be a cartoon come to life. While Verbinski's approach to action meshes well with that goal, his preference for dark, gloomy, and at times gross imagery and ideas clashes with it. The performers and story feel like something out of a children's book, but Verbinski films it like a dark adult comedy. Hell, at times he drifts close to noir or horror. That makes for an interesting movie, but not exactly a fun one.

The story here is pretty bare-bones since it mainly exists to set up Tom-and-Jerry-style antics. Following the death of their father, brothers Ernie and Lars (Nathan Lane and Lee Evans, respectively) inherit both his string factory and a rundown house he owned, neither of which initially seem all that valuable. Their father, I should note, wanted them to work together in the string factory, but Ernie has no interest in leaving his successful restaurant to do so. Unfortunately for him, said restaurant stops being successful on Christmas Eve after the mayor eats half a roach and dies of a heart attack. Meanwhile, Lars's wife throws him out when she learns he's refused to sell the flailing string factory. Having nowhere else to go, the brothers head to their father's house, where - thanks in part to a mouse they fail to catch - they find evidence the building was secretly designed by a famed architect and is worth far more than they imagined.

They get to work renovating, but of course the mouse gets in the way. More accurately, their attempts to kill the mouse get in the way, with each encounter doing escalating amounts of damage to the property, as well as enacting absurd levels of cartoon violence against the brothers. They try getting a cat and hiring an exterminator, neither of which work - it becomes clear that the mouse is smarter than anyone's giving it credit for.

Eventually, they actually do catch the mouse after inadvertently knocking it unconscious while fighting among themselves, but neither brother is able to bring himself to kill the helpless creature. Instead they put it in a box and mail it to Fidel Castro (the '90s were a weird time), only for the package to be returned for insufficient postage. The mouse winds up free during the auction, and the brothers' attempt to finally get it destroys the property.

But contrary to their initial assumption, it does not destroy the mouse, which hitches a ride under their car when they go to their factory to sleep. In the morning, they wake up to find the mouse running a block of cheese through the string machinery, resulting in a twine ball of string cheese, which is a success. At the end, we see them working together to produce the stuff, aided by the mouse who functions as their taste tester.

While the holidays only get minimal screen time, there's actually a lot to discuss in terms of Mouse Hunt's place in the context of holiday movies. I'll start with the obvious: they use the holidays thematically in a cliched couple of ways. The timing sets up a dismal Christmas Eve that serves to contrast expectation with reality. Of course, this also serves to highlight themes of family (the string is a metaphor for family ties, which... look, I said upfront there wasn't a lot of subtlety here).

For once, the business side of things might be more interesting. This was released in the '90s, and I don't think its similarities to Home Alone are accidental. While this ostensibly focuses on the human characters, the audience's sympathies are of course with the mouse throughout (doubly so among the young members of the audience). This is, in a real sense, Home Alone with a mouse instead of Kevin, and I suspect the studio was all too eager to both implant that idea and to duplicate the release strategy (in case there was any doubt when this came out). While this certainly didn't come anywhere near the box office success of the first two Home Alone movies, it made significantly more than the third one, which it was directly competing with in 1997.

The movie also may be invoking some older holiday traditions. Perhaps unsurprisingly because of the director, Mouse Hunt incorporates elements of haunted house films in how the location and mouse are framed. You could even view the mouse as the spirit of their father, though this interpretation works better during some scenes than others. Regardless, both the cinematography and dialogue play up the angle that there's more here than a mere rodent. That of course connects this at least tenuously to Christmas ghost stories, and given his interests I have to believe Verbinski was at least conscious of the connection.

Since we're already exploring loose connections, I'm also reminded of The Great Rupert, one of my favorite forgotten holiday films. Mouse Hunt isn't a tenth as good, but both start with the premise of an unusually smart rodent creating mischief in a house around Christmas (though the stories and tones are completely different).

Regardless, this one is a bit of a mess. There are sequences that work better out of context, such as the cat and exterminator subplots (the latter features Christopher Walken). But even these are rarely as funny as they are interesting as an experiment in transforming cartoons into live-action. Despite having Gore Verbinski behind the camera, there's just not much here to appeal to the casual moviegoer.