Ty Burr
January 19, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

What Hollywood did to ”Stuart Little”

When is a sellout not a sellout? When it makes over $100 million at the box office? When I was a wee lad, back in the dark ages, I reserved a special spot in my soul’s bookcase for the books of E.B. White. Specifically ”Charlotte’s Web” and ”Stuart Little,” both of which I installed right next to other much-creased classics like ”The Phantom Tollbooth,” ”A Wrinkle in Time,” and the collected works of Roald Dahl. What does White’s books have in common with those others? Not that they’re well-written (which they are) or rosy evocations of childhood innocence.

Nah, what I responded to in all those books was their transcendent weirdness, the way they used youthful fantasy to open up a sinkhole to the funkier undercurrents of the world. Kids hate to be patronized — remember how you could sniff out a grown-up lie at 20 paces? — and there was something reassuringly honest about the way these page-turners copped to uncertainty and disaster, insisting only (if at all) on the tenuous connections of human friendship and love to see the characters through.

I mean, how weird is ”Stuart Little”? Human couple has, as their second child, a mouse. I mean, the woman actually gives birth to the little fella, which development is not dealt with in any seamy detail but simply presented as one of life’s vagaries. From that jumping-off point, White follows his hero on a series of deadpan adventures, including the establishment of a semi-diplomatic relationship with the family cat, courtship of a transient bird, and eventual setting off toward parts unknown. What has always stuck with me most about the book is its clear-eyed knowledge of the dangerous largeness of the world — and how simply navigating it is an act of unremarked-upon nobility.

So now we have the Hollywood version: ”Stuart Little,” starring the cute kid from ”Jerry Maguire,” Geena Davis on a career rebound, Nathan Lane as the voice of Snowbell the cat, and one hell of a CGI mouse (voiced by eternal moppet Michael J. Fox). In some respects, the movie is surprisingly faithful to the source, especially in its depiction of a small-town, fairy-tale Manhattan. Lane and Fox are delightful, and if the movie’s no ”Babe,” it’s still well-above-average kiddie fodder.

If you know the book, though, you know that White’s odd, wise tone has been jettisoned in favor of feel-good caution. Not sharing the author’s calm faith in the unexplainable, the movie makes sure we understand that Stuart is adopted by the Little family; it sounds like a minor change, but it reflects the studios’ market-tested lack of faith in childish imagination. Also gone is the eerie, evanescent character of Margalo the bird; in its stead is a big old plot wherein Snowbell the cat tries to have Stuart knocked off. Hollywood has built an industry upon putting heroes in explicit peril, but somehow E. B. White’s take on things — in which death is the constant background hum against which we live — still strikes me as the more powerful.

Did I take my kids to see it? Yeah, and they enjoyed it too. And now I’m reading them the book, letting them trace their grubby little fingers along Garth Williams’ drawings — richer in every line than the most realistic computer animation — as we go. If ”Stuart Little” the movie leads others to ”Stuart Little” the book, maybe it doesn’t matter how small it actually is.

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