We're watching the most intensely depressing scenes of the bleak Sundance entry ''Owning Mahowny.'' Philip Seymour Hoffman has just lost $10 million at an Atlantic City blackjack table. Minnie Driver is picking up the shattered pieces of her life. And in the middle of a darkened theater, while film buffs are riveted to their seats, another famous thespian Minnie (she of the Mouse family) has taken this moment to work the room. As dismayed ushers quickly escort the wayward rodent out of the theater, Minnie shakes her polka-dotted booty and waves her plus-size paw at semi-shocked cinephiles. Anchors (and all dignity) aweigh on ''Ebert & Roeper'''s third annual Film Festival at Sea.
From Feb. 20 to 23, 200 hardcore movie fans joined 2,400 other cruisers aboard the Disney Wonder. That meant shelling out from $664 to $1,099 for wake-up calls from Mickey Mouse, an instruction sheet on how to wash hands (beware of the Norwalk virus!), and omnipresent smiley waiters singing ''It's a Small World'' while doling out Mickey-shaped desserts. But it also meant seeing independent movies (''Bend It Like Beckham,'' ''The Grey Zone,'' ''Spellbound'') that Ebert (the not-so-fat-anymore one) and Roeper (the other one) had handpicked from the Sundance and Toronto film festivals.
''At first I'd pictured this boat being a gigantic cartoon: Everything would be inflatable and Mickey would be hounding me all the time,'' Roeper recalls. ''I thought, 'A Disney ship and independent, challenging movies?' It seemed like a strange combination.'' (Not entirely, since a branch of Disney syndicates the movie mavens' TV show.)
Disney approached Ebert and Roeper with the idea three years ago. ''I had certain rules about film festivals before I'd agree,'' says Ebert, who -- like Roeper -- isn't paid to host the festival, lest it be seen as a conflict of interest. ''There could be no pressure to show Disney movies. There was some thought to 'Oh, maybe we should show 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,'' but no, we wanted to do a festival for people who are into movies.''
And these people definitely are. What they lack in Cannes glamour or Telluride beauty, they make up for in rabidness, showing up 20 minutes early for screenings (and mowing down anyone in their path to prime seating -- in one case, a woman in a wheelchair) and flaunting their near-Hollywood credentials. An elderly woman who appears to be your average bingo player (available on deck 3, by the way) goes around declaring she's from ''Oregon, the home of Gus Van Sant,'' while another cruiser proclaims she owns cats Siskel and Ebert (though Siskel, like his namesake, has passed away).