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I know this is a question that you’ve all asked yourselves at one point or other, but I’ll ask it anyway; how do we talk about Snuffly Whiskerwinks?
As a young mouse growing up in a human world, Whiskerwinks was more than a hero. He was an inspiration. An icon. Without a doubt the greatest mouse actor who has ever lived, a performer of incomporable range and depth. A mouse who smashed the Hollywood fur barrier and went on to to give life to such iconic roles as “Mouse in Shawshank Redemption”, “Mouse in Fiddler on the Roof” and Willy Loman in the 1985 screen version of Death of a Salesman. He could do more with a twitch of his whiskers than most other actors could do with their whole tails. To see Whiskerwinks on screen is to see a master in full command of his art. But how then do we square this with what we know of Whiskerwinks’ personal life? Does the fact that he moved audiences to tears in a sell-out run of Hamlet in the West End mean that we can ignore the allegations made against him by his own son in his explosive tell-all biography “Body of a Mouse, Heart of a Rat”? Do his multiple Oscars erase the stain of years of virulent anti-gerbil statements and cat apologia? Is his legacy as a performer so great that we can overlook his legacy as a husband and father, and the hurt that his behaviour caused his wife and 716 children? Are we really just going to forget the time he got off his face on Gouda at the 69th Academy Awards and scurried up Meryl Streep’s leg, causing her to jump on a chair and shriek “EEK!”?
Today we’re looking at Whiskerwinks’ last performance before his sordid and untimely death in 1997. Obviously, I’m not going to go into details here. You all know the story, and there’s no point picking over who was on who’s yacht, who strangled who with a belt, who ate who’s stash of whatever-it-was and eventually had to be surgically extracted from Johnny Depp’s cloaca. Let the dead past lie.
So on this here blog we’ve talked a little about Dreamworks’ early output when they were still putting out some of the funniest, most beautiful traditionally animated movies out there and before they had settled into their comfortable rut as the Pepsi of American animation. But we haven’t really touched on their live action output. Mouse Hunt holds the distinction of being the first DreamWorks family picture. Obviously, casting Whiskerwinks in a family movie makes about as much sense as casting Michael Vick in a remake of Homeward Bound but this was the nineties. Nowadays, of course, your movie would be boycotted if you tried casting a rodent who lost eight different children in five different games of blackjack but it was a different time.
The movie begins with the funeral of Rudolf Smuntz, owner of an ancient and decrepit string factory. His two sons, Lars (Lee Evans) and Ernie (Nathan Lane) bicker as they carry their father’s coffin out of the church which causes them to trip, sending the coffin flying and their father’s corpse down an open manhole where it gets swept right out to sea.
This scene saves me a lot of time as a critic because it simultaneously shows everything that’s good and bad about the movie in one scene. Firstly, the good. It’s a very handsome movie. It’s got the feel of a good Tim Burton movie, a mid-century American city dusted with dark fairy dust, like Norman Rockwell on downers. Secondly, that cast. Lane, Evans and of course the Olivier of Rodents himself. That’s a damn good cast for a comedy. And the script is…fine. It’s fine. You like jokes? It’s got jokes.
The problem is really one of tone. The premise is basically Laurel and Hardy meets Tom and Jerry. It needs to be light on its feet. But there’s this weird air of melancholy over the whole thing that makes it hard to laugh at. Like, that opening joke. You might have read that and thought “that’s horrible” or you might have read it and thought “that’s hilarious”, but the fact is it could be either. Whether a joke like that lands or flops is all down to how it’s staged and presented and how much distance has been put between you and the characters emotionally. Despite all the horrible, agonising stuff that happens to Laurel and Hardy, you never feel sorry for them because their movies are very good at putting you in the right frame of mind for shutting off your natural inclination to empathise. The tone of those movies is all about telling the audience “none of this is real, it’s all fine, they’re fine, it’s all fine now, how are you”. And Mouse Hunt just can’t quite do that. All through the movie Lars and Ernie are in this kind of weird limbo. They’re not really wonderful people, but they’re not really bad either, and watching life continually dumping on them actually gets a little depressing. Plus, there’s the fact that Rudolf (the dead guy in the sewer) was played by William Hickey, who was dying of ephezema at the time. And shit, he looks it. Knowing that makes all the jokes about his death just…y’know, it feels icky.
Anyway, having flushed their father like a goldfish, the Smuntzes return to the string factory for the reading of their father’s will. Their father left them the factory, which Lars wants to run and Ernie wants to sell. And he also left them a house, a rather forbidding looking pile overlooking the town whose previous resident was found locked in a trunk in the attic. This, of course, is a rather dark joke about the real life death of Whiskerwinks’ first agent. Nothing was ever proved, of course. But still. Very poor taste.
Ernie, who’s a successful chef, has little interest in the house and less in the string factory so he leaves both to Lars and helps himself to a box of his father’s Cuban cigars. Unfortunately, there’s a really, really fake looking CGI cockroach in the box which escapes into the kitchen of his restaurant and finds its way into the meal of the town mayor, who promptly has a heart attack and dies, destroying Ernie’s restaurant business and leaving him penniless.
Meanwhile, Lars is trying to run the string factory while fending off advances from a couple of sharply dressed heavies from the local nylon cord cartel.
One of the things I do like about this movie is the weird little flights of fantasy it goes off on, like the idea that the string and cord industries are two rival gangs like the Sharks and the Jets. The cord guys offer Lars a very generous offer and tell him they’ll take the factory into the 21st century which is a weird thing to say in a movie that’s so clearly going for a mid-century aesthetic.
Lars is definitely tempted by the offer, but he remembers in flashback how his father gave him and Ernie his lucky string right before he died and made him promise never to sell the factory so he tells the Cord Mafia that “A world without string is chaos!”
This, of course, is a reference to how string theory provides a possible solution to how to reconcile General Relativity and Quantum Field Theory thereby providing order to a chaotic universe…
Lars’ wife, April (Vicki Lewis), is so pissed at Lars for throwing away the opportunity that she throws him out of the house. So now both brothers are peniless and homeless and they go to the only place they have left, the death-trap-with-a-doorbell their father left them on the outskirts of town.
Now, you might find it weird that we’re like twenty minutes into this movie without actually seeing the titular mouse. That, of course, was because the movie started shooting without Whiskerwinks and all the preceding scenes were hastily thrown together while the studio desperately tried to get him extradited from Uruguay. We all know why, no need to go into it here.
While exploring the house, the brothers find the house’s blueprints which state that it was built in 1876 and Ernie says that “a centennial house might actually be worth something!” and, and, and why would you do that movie? Why would you definitively date yourself as taking place in 1976 and refuse to even gesture at looking like you take place in the seventies? It would be less jarring if a robot just randomly walked in like in Rocky IV.
The brothers discover that the house was designed by Charles LaRue, a legendary architect, and that it could be worth a pile of money if they renovate it. Ernie announces an auction and the two brothers get to work. They see a mouse(Whiskerwinks), and while Lars just wants to leave it alone, Ernie is determined that he’s not going be ruined by another vermin (nice, real nice). So he sets a trap for the mouse and the two brothers go to sleep. During the night, the mouse finds the trap and gets to work removing the olive that they’ve set as bait.
The next day, the brothers find the trap empty and the olive pit left behind. Lars exclaims that “He left the pit! Just to mock us” and Ernie replies: “I think you’re giving him a little too much credit . Mice don’t mock. They don’t have a sense of humour, or irony.”
After the mouse steals their cereal (y’know, the cereal that they brought into HIS HOUSE BEFORE THEY TRIED TO MURDER HIM IN COLD BLOOD) the brothers decide that if the mouse is too smart to be killed by one mousetrap, a thousand mousetraps will do the job.
Unfortunately, they end up trapping themselves in a corner of the kitchen with the whole floor covered in mousetraps. Where upon the mouse comes out of his hole, climbs the wall, swings across on the light switch and drops a single cherry onto the floor, setting off a tsunami of springing mouse-traps on the two brothers.
The brothers decide to go to the cat pound to get a mean, vicious cat but I repeat myself. The cat pound manager is played by Ernie Sabella, so if you’ve ever wanted to hear Timon ask Pumbaa for some “mean pussy”, you’re a sick freak and you need help.
Pumbaa gives them “Catzilla”, a cat with all the charm and sociability of a Velociraptor and they set him loose on the poor unfortunate mouse. This leads to a sequence that lovingly homages several old Tom and Jerry cartoons, and there are certainly worse ways to while away an even.
Meanwhile, the brothers have a new problem. The bank is going to foreclose the house before they even get a chance to auction it. Ernie tells Lars that he’s going to have stop paying the string factory workers until after the house is sold. The workers don’t take kindly to this, however, and stage a strike over not getting paid, the dirty commies. At the factory, Ernie finds the contract that Lars was offered by La Corda Nostra and pockets it for himself. He reaches out to the Nylon Mob and arranges to meet with them to sell the factory behind Lars’ back but instead ends up getting hit by a car. Meanwhile, Lars is trying to run the factory without any staff and not doing so hot. You may have noticed that this middle section of this movie called “Mouse Hunt” has a great deal of the Smuntz Brothers money troubles and very little mouse hunting. Again, not the plan.
Back at the house, however, the mouse has dealt with Catzilla by dropping him down the dumbwaiter so it’s time for the brothers (and the movie) to bring out the big guns.
You want to see how adding one actor can instantly elevate an otherwise so so movie?
I mean sure, Caesar the Exterminator doesn’t really add to the plot or really end up mattering in any meaningful way, but I could watch Christopher Walken’s “David Bowie got into a transporter accident with William Shatner” schtick all day long.
While trying to meet with the Nylon guys, Ernie gets hit by a bus and ends up in hospital. But Lars visits him and tells him that everything’s going to be okay because he and April are back together and she’s even leant them the money to pay the bank so the auction can go ahead. Ernie’s suspicious, of course, that his sister in law is suddenly back with Lars right after learning that he’s about to come into all that tasty auction money.
The brothers return home only to find the police outside. The police came after a 911 call was made from the house where screaming could be heard and the cops found Caesar trapped in the attic in a trunk. The brothers enter the house and find it completely wrecked.
They get a voice message from La Corda Nostra which causes a huge argument between the two brothers, Ernie furious that Lars hid the offer from him and Lars furious that Ernie tried to go behind his back. This culminates with Ernie throwing a small orange at Lars which accidentally hits the mouse who was scurrying past on the mantelpiece, knocking him unconscious.
Like so much of this movie, this was not planned.
The fruit scene, of course, has entered film mythology as one of the all-time great moments of unscripted film-making. But there’s a darker side to the story. Poor Lee Evans, of course, was never the same after this movie and almost quit acting altogether because of the truly vicious bullying he received from Whiskerwinks on set. Whiskerwinks delighted in teasing Evans about the size of his ears and, notoriously, once gave Evans a “magic feather” and promised him that if he jumped off the roof of the mansion set while holding it he’d be able to fly. Evans’ subsequent hospitalisation for multiple fractures delayed filming by several months. All this has to be remembered when reading the following passage about the Fruit Scene from Lee Evans’ memoir; Mice, Monsters and Moguls: My Time in Hollywood.
“The fruit scene was entirely unscripted. None of us knew Whiskerwinks was there. He often liked to sneak around the set when other people’s scenes were being shot and ambush unsuspecting cast and crew with a tiny knife. He did this for laughs, and also to rob people. The script called for Nate (Nathan Lane) to throw the orange at me and for me to get hit in the face. But I instinctively ducked and Whiskerwinks was clobbered as he snuck past on the mantelpiece. Gore Verbinski yelled “CUT!” and we clustered around. Whiskerwinks wasn’t moving. He just lay there, still as anything. Someone said “We have to call an ambulance!” but nobody moved. Nobody. Finally, Nate spoke. Always so calm, always so steady. Nate had been my rock through this entire hellish shoot. We had forged a bond deeper than brotherhood, the kind of bond soldiers forge in the deepest, darkest jungles. “Now hang on” he said quietly “Let’s just all stay calm.”
We were all thinking the same thing.
Whiskerwinks might be dead.
It…it might be over.
It was nobody’s fault. It was an accident. We could all testify to that.
We might be free.
As I looked down at the tiny, still form beneath me, the hated form of he who had caused us all so much pain and torment, I understood how the men of the Politburo felt when they discovered Stalin’s body in 1953. If we did nothing, he might die and we would be free. But if he recovered…
But what if he never recovered?
There was a large heavy book on a nearby table. Would they stop me? Would any one…
Suddenly Whiskerwinks’ leg twitched and someone yelled “He’s alive! Get an ambulance, quick!”
The spell was broken, and I was yanked back from the moral abyss.”
Much like the actor playing him, Lars can’t bring himself to kill the mouse while he’s defenceless so instead the brothers decide to mail the mouse to Fidel Castro, who famously despises mice.
But the cheap bastiches scrimp on the postage which results in the package being returned to the States. And now the mouse is angry.
Thinking their problems are over, the brothers prepare for the big auction. But when he goes outside for a breath of fresh air, Lars finds the box that they mailed the mouse in lying on the ground with a hole in the bottom and realises that all hell is about to break loose. He runs back to warn Ernie but it’s too late. The mouse has rigged the houses boiler to burst and the whole rotting edifice comes crashing down. Now they’re homeless, peniless and Lars’ wife has abandoned him for a wealthy bidder because women, amirite? But the brothers realise that they have each other and, as their father hoped, they have finally been brought closer together. And hey, at least the mouse is finally dead. So they drive back to the factory to spend the night, little realising that they’ve picked up a passenger.
The brother’s go to sleep in the office and wake up to find that the mouse has turned the entire factory into one giant deathtrap, and that now, they are the ones who will be hunted, as a metaphor for how the rodent revolution will rise up and destroy the two-legged oppressors and…
Sorry, I’m looking at the original script, not the deeply compromised final draft. Alright, so they wake up to find that the mouse but cheese in the machines and turned the factory into a CHEESE STRING FACTORY.
And the movie ends with the Smuntzes and the Mouse having put their differences aside to work together to create a lucrative cheese string empire.
Eh, it’s fine. As a comedy it never really gets out of second gear, there are a few good lines and Nathan Lane is always a delight. Plus, it’s got Christopher Walkin? Talking about how you got asbestos. Shouldn’t take him more than a day. Or two. To REMOVE it. And as the capstone of the careers of one of the most brilliant but troubling figures in Hollywood and rodent history?
I give it three stars.
NEXT UPDATE: 03 October 2019.
NEXT TIME: October is Aladdin month on Unshaved Mouse, as we see what ever happened to that plucky kid from Agrabah.