Hugh Laurie and Geena Davis are back again as the Littles—those time-warp, '50s-acting parents of one normal boy named George and a little fellow named Stuart, who was "not much bigger than a mouse." In fact, in E.B. White's beloved children's book, he is a mouse, though his parents don't seem to notice. They treat him the same as their human offspring, except for one thing: Mrs. L. is awfully protective of the whiskery little guy.
But while "Stuart Little" and "Stuart Little 2" combined live action and animation, arriving on DVD via the big screen, "Stuart Little 3: Call of the Wild" is an all-animated, direct-to-video release. Does is show? Yes. Is it bad? No. But by the same token, it's not as charming and interesting to watch as the first two installments. It also seems geared more for kids than the entire family. The plot of this outdoor adventure follows a familiar path, with a Beast in the forest that frightens everyone, a fast-talking sidekick animal, contests and trials, songs, bright colors, and lessons about perseverance and friendship.
Michael J. Fox lends his voice once more to the little mouse, who in this installment is jazzed about joining the Lake Scouts at a retreat where his family has decided to spend their summer vacation. Of course, the cabin is a shambles, so Mrs. L. ends up cleaning house for most of her vacation, while the "men" troop over to the Lake Scouts for tests of manly courage and skill. Mr. L. hires on as assistant to the bumbling troopmaster (Peter Macnichol) so he can keep an eye on Stuart, and the bulk of the film follows the little rodent as he attempts to advance in rank . . . but never comes close. He can't get his arrows to fly as far as the bigger boys, he looks like an appetizer to a largemouth bass when he paddles his tiny canoe in the races, and about all he can carry on the full-pack hike is a piece of candy. But that doesn't matter to the chipper Stuart, who, despite a string of disappointments, keeps his chin up and keeps plugging away. That, of course, is what makes this G-rated film appealing to parents. There are lessons to be learned, and they're wholesome, no matter what your religious orientation . . . or lack therof.
Snowbell, the family cat is back, but not Nathan Lane, who was probably too busy with "The Producers" to lend his voice to the finicky furball. Taking his place is Kevin Schon, who interacts with Stuart and the streetwise tabby friend of his who stowed away. There's not much to the cat sideplot, and poor Mrs. L. could cry for help and no one would respond—it's not exactly a pro-feminist film. The closest thing to a feisty female is a girl named Brook (Tara Strong) whom George likes. Jonathan Lipnicki is the other mainstay to stay away for the third film, replaced by Corey Padnos. But if any character vies for the audience's attention, it's Reeko, a thieving, jive-talking, funky skunk who befriends Stuart and tries to show him how to survive in a forest where The Beast (Virginia Madsen) looms like an omnipresent shadow as Shere Khan did in "The Jungle Book." In fact, though there's no violence to speak of and, predictably, The Beast gets hers, there are moments of peril which may frighten very young children.
But there's enough comic relief coming from the hapless Stuart, the pampered Snowbell, and the clueless troopmaster to more than offset the scary moments. Same with the music, the keystone song of which is the snappy "Reeko's Funk," which you can all but picture James Brown spinning around on the dance floor singing.
As a children's cartoon it has all the elements that will lead to repeat play. But, truthfully, it just doesn't capture the world and the tone of E.B. White's book the way that the first two films did. Laurie and Davis were fun to watch because of their expressions and body language, and the live-action element coupled with animation reinforced the idea of a normal-but-not-quite world in a way that an all-animated feature just can't approach. There's also an annoying idiosyncrasy in the style of animation, with predominant shading on all the characters that keeps shifting with movement, but not always with the logic that would explain shadows given a source of light. The kids won't notice, but I was annoyed by the inconsistency of shading on the animated characters.
Video: "Stuart Little 3" is mastered in High Definition and presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. The quality is decent, with sharp edges on the borders of even pulsating colors like the bright reds.
Audio: The audio is English Dolby digital 5.1 or French Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, and the difference between the soundtracks is noticeable mostly in terms of how robust and resonant the sound is—with the 5.1 providing a much fuller sound. Subtitles are in English and French.
Extras: Like the film itself, the bonus features are strictly for the kids . . . and young ones, at that. A "Help Stuart Escape" interactive game is basically a series of 10 trivia questions about the film that can be played at beginner, intermediate, and expert levels—though, frankly, I didn't notice all that much of a difference in difficulty levels. Another game, "Monty's Monstrous Appetite," gives players a "code" of sounds on a set of plumbing pipes and asks the little ones to fetch milk for one sound and a can of tuna for the other. It will be a nice challenge for pre-schoolers, but children older than that will just shrug or say, "So?"
"Stuart's Summer Journal" is a read-along story that can be played either with or without narrator, and it's pretty typical as read-alongs go. The "Reeko's Funk" music video is culled from the film, but it's really a catchy song that I can picture many children requesting. The last significant bonus feature is a "Learn to Draw" extra that shows kids the basics of sketching Stuart, Snowbell, and Reeko. One nice thing about it is that it's slow enough to actually be used as a teaching device, and a voice asks would-be artists if they want a step repeated. Rounding out the extras is a Wendy's public service announcement promoting adoption (does that give you a hint of the audience that this was pitched toward?) and previews of other Sony offerings for kids.
Bottom Line: As my colleague John J. Puccio would say, this one is strictly for the kids. But if you can deal with the loss of live actors and 3-D realistic looking CGI animals from the first two films and accept the average-looking 2-D animation, there's still a lot of positives that make "Stuart Little 3: Call of the Wild" a worthwhile addition to the family DVD collection.