What’s On The Shelf: The Best Laid Plans of Mouse Hunt and Men
The latest information is that cinemas will be open again at reduced capacity from June 7th. While news, reviews and events in the fair city of film remain a little thinner on the ground, Film In Dublin is still taking an occasional look at What’s On…The Shelf, taking a deeper dive in to some of the films in their personal collections. This time, Luke Dunne sings the praises of unjustly forgotten 90s family film, Mouse Hunt.
But Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes of mice and men
Go oft awry,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!
To A Mouse, (excerpt) Robert Burns, 1715
A world without string is chaos
Mouse Hunt, Gore Verbinski, 1997
After accidentally destroying a mouse’s nest while ploughing his field in Scotland, so moved and guilty was Robert Burns, the Scottish poet, that he began to compose one of his most well-known works right where he stood. To A Mouse is Burns’ reflection and remorse on how man so often stumbles unthinkingly into another’s habitat and destroys it; humanity’s dominion breaking Nature’s social union in pursuit of their own goals.
But the mouse, says Burns, is blessed in comparison – humans are just as vulnerable to cruel fate, the crushing plough of a more powerful, incomprehensible force causing ruin. Worse still, these dreary prospects are caused often by one’s own mind, an ‘oft awry’ self-own that comes from casting the eye backwards to one’s previous mistakes, or looking forward where you cannot see, into guesswork and fear.
It’s easy to feel in moments of doubt such as these; a nest destroyed or an existential crisis triggered in the middle of field work, as though you are cut adrift, hopeless, a cosmic joke spinning through a world of chaos. But we’re never quite as lost as we think in those moments where we feel most exposed. There are ties that bind us all back to each other, us poor earth-born companions and fellow mortals. There is string. And there are occasions where things need to unravel a bit in order for us to find our way back to each other.
In the mid 1990s, then-upstart film studio Dreamworks were attempting to build their own fragile nest. Though founded on lofty ideals of creative ambition and fresh and forward thinking, a combination of financial aspirations and the legendary Hollywood hubris of studio co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg meant that the bold new kids on the block were quickly looking to emulate the biggest game in town; Katzenberg’s old bosses at the House of Mouse.
Katzenberg’s rush to have beat A Bug’s Life to theatres with its funhouse mirror counterpart Antz is relatively well-known, but it was not his only shot fired on the kid-friendly battlefield. Combining several of the decade’s box-office trends of cute critters, the burgeoning potential of CGI and the down-with-grown-ups slapstick of films like Home Alone, Katzenberg was, as he so often is, loud and clear: he wanted a mouse.
“We’ve got our mouse!” was reportedly Katzenberg’s cry when Dreamworks secured a script for Mouse Hunt, a story of a rodent defending his home turf from bumbling intruders that had two clear benefits from an exec perspective: plenty of laughs and franchise potential. Rising directorial wonderkid Gore Verbinski was signed on to make the project, and a straightforward family film seemed all cued up. What could possibly go awry?
The Men Who Would Be King, Nicole LaPorte’s exceptional account of the rise and, well, not fall, but not-quite-rise-as-high-as-millionaire-men-would-like of DreamWorks, outlines the unexpectedly demoralizing foot on which Mouse Hunt stepped forward. On the first day of the production, producer Walter Parkes assembled the crew, including Verbinski (directing his first feature film after showing award-winning promise in advertising). An imposing, opinionated figure, Parkes gave everybody a withering pep talk of Frank Grimian proportions.
“You think I’m going to wish you well and hope that everything goes well. I’m not. I don’t think you’re ready to make this movie. I don’t think this movie is any good. I think this movie was a big waste of money and I think all of you are going off on an adventure of folly.”
And out the door Parkes went. That’ll put the plough through your burrow.
Verbinski, feverish and frenetic, had a different vision for what the film should be to Parkes and the other producers. DreamWorks imagined a live action Tom & Jerry caper. Verbinski’s gothic production design, early 20th century costuming and oompah music score were not what they had in mind. Katzenberg and co considered the film a minor showcase for state-of-the-art special effects, Verbinski had to be talked down from his initial vision of exclusively using trained mice. Keep in mind this movie has a mouse beating up Christopher Walken.
Rows, doubts and as above, projections of disaster ensued. But Verbinski persevered, aided and abetted with the higher ups by DreamWorks’ pushover dad in chief Steven Spielberg. As the production went on, Verbinski proved more amiable to compromise than his bosses had initially feared. They did, eventually, use CGI for things a mouse cannot physically do (the few trained real ones they did use were subsequently adopted by besotted crew members), and the oompah music was replaced by something more oompahdjacent by Alan Silvestri. Verbinski’s sensibilities it turned out, were still suitably cartoonish. They were just more Looney than the initial Hanna-Barbara outline. With cruel but earned fate being dished out by the film’s mouse, the dark slapstick that befalls brothers Ernie and Lars Smuntz in Mouse Hunt is wonderfully and appropriately daffy.
The world of the Smuntz brothers is cartoonish not by being bright, colourful and hyperactive, but in visuals of distinct silhouettes and exaggerated movements. The anarchic, physical cause and effect comedy that Nathan Lane and Lee Evans are victim to rolls out with weight and glee, for all Spielberg was mentoring Verbinski, the ties to the former’s contemporaries are what stood to the young director going forward, threading the needle between Joe Dante and Tobe Hooper. Like them, Verbinski does his best storytelling kinetically; using how much is happening on camera and where to communicate. Think of the contrast between the loud, busy, fast-moving ship battles in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and the slow, creeping way the camera in The Ring draws focus. Believe it or not, scenes in Mouse Hunt of 50 traps snapping off at once or a ludicrously dramatic angle of a rodent scurrying up a chimney allowed Verbinski to cut his teeth on both visual styles in a way that fits, simple as it is, this movie’s story. Mouse Hunt shows the dire consequences of wading into unwanted territory, breaking Nature’s social union as Burns would describe it. To do that without sufficiently tight ties binding you? Chaos.
Ernie and Lars are a double act on a cellular level, brothers of literal Laurel and Hardy proportions, a cynical social climber and a naïve sad sack who have been estranged for years. Their avoidance of each other is as unnatural as the changing face of their father Rudolf in portrait above them, looming, leering, lecturing with his eyes, disapproving their conflict. These are brothers who are bound to each other, sticks in want of a slap.
Venal Ernie has ambitions to make a name for himself as a chef and emerge from the shadow of his string magnate father, but his plans are derailed after a kitchen mishap leads to him killing the mayor. All his toil, schmoozing and phony French accent work, dashed by a stray cockroach. Ernie isn’t a nice guy exactly, but through the expert kvetching of Nathan Lane, it’s hard not to agree with his self-pity. But his goals are doomed from the jump, coming from an unresolved inner turmoil, his resentment and issues with the family he wants to pretend don’t bother him any. Ernie only cares about the bottom line, and schmucks like that always miss the fine print.
Brother Lars, meanwhile, is more putz than schmuck – these distinctions in a story with a Vaudeville sense of humour are very important. Lars was closer and more caring with his father and wants to continue the legacy of the old family string factory, but he doesn’t know what he wants it – or himself – to be. He can’t sell the place to the sinister cord competitors who descend after his father’s death. He can’t see how little his wife cares for him either. Lars is strung up, he can’t see how little he gets out of that marriage himself, nor can he move forward with the Smuntz factory, as his father would so clearly rather that he do. It sits instead as an empty monument, Lars fear of failure obscuring the ways he’s already failing.
What do we feel when we backwards cast our eyes on prospects dreary, or forwards where we can’t see, but guess and fear? We feel locked into narrow paths in either direction, our visions of ourselves become more outlandish, more exaggerated. To overly dwell – on the life we planned for ourselves, on the paths we’ve disturbed in the field, on the super smart mouse in the mansion we inherited who maybe killed Christopher Walken, is to obsess. We can become cartoonish, heightened, foolish figures of ourselves, when we fail to see the string, the trail, to see that we’ve come from somewhere and need to go somewhere else, together. The definition of Looney, doing the same things and expecting a different result.
When Lars and Ernie inherit a mansion from their father, the invaluable final design of a renowned architect, their plan is to sell it on at auction, a get-rich-quick scheme to improve their dismal fortunes. The incumbent occupant, our Mouse, has an equally simple goal: get these losers off its property by any means necessary. “To that mouse, you are the intruder” says exterminator Christopher Walken with Rorschachian gravel gravity. Madcap violence ensues. Many mouse traps are set off, explosions occur, killer cats are dispatched and disposed of. In the midst of this merry melody, something interesting starts to happen to all three of our central players. They seem more entrenched in their goals then ever, but in the chaos, string starts spooling.
In the best-case scenario, which Ernie and Lars get further away from with every injury and indignity the Mouse inflicts on them, they would flip the house, get a large but fleeting windfall and, most significantly, probably never speak to each other again. Or at least they would never get any closer than they are when they’re sniping at their father’s bedside, a simmering sibling impasse. For Ernie in particular there’s nothing wrong with this outcome, and he even plans to sell the factory behind Lars’ back to the cord crowd when prospects with the mouse in the house are looking dire. But it’s not going to give either man what he actually needs, it would still leave them both, at their core, adrift, ignoble, ridiculous. It wouldn’t be as swift and stinging as slapstick. They would become tragic, not comedic.
Their mouse hunting efforts fail to bring Ernie and Lars what they wanted. On the other end of the madness though, they find themselves where they need to be; with each other. Losing sight of their goals, feverish, vengeful, reactive, the unified goal – catch that mouse! – sees the pair as close together as they’ve probably ever been. At their lowest point, and again, they’re being outwitted by a rodent here – they turn on each other, but this isn’t Larry, Curly and Moe poking and slapping each other, in fact the brothers get all their emotional baggage out in the open, bursting out into a conversation they should have had years ago. Learning that Ernie went behind his back, Lars grows a spine and lets him have it, about the mess his more assertive brother has gotten them into and the fact that Ernie doesn’t respect him. Laurel isn’t supposed to berate Hardy and it’s a scene with an electric, forbidden energy. Something is unleashed.
In turn, Ernie finally lets out that he resented the relationship Lars and their dad had, and always wanted Pop’s approval. Mired in the row, their minds are off the simple plan that has spiraled them out of control. Until they’re snapped right back to it; throwing an orange, Lars hits and stuns the Mouse. Funny how sometimes when you take your eye off the ball it rolls tight into place. Unable to face actually killing their enemy, the brothers instead post the mouse off to Castro. You’d think they would have learned from the argument that they just had that a problem deferred is not a problem solved. The Mouse will be coming back, and of course you know, this means war.
The Mouse also gets itself lost in the sauce, the thrill of showing up its playthings at every turn actually putting it at risk in the end. It becomes equally driven to get rid of Ernie and Lars as they are of it, and in the process, it ultimately destroys the mansion it calls home, flooding it to the point of collapse. As Mouse Hunt hits its climax, the lost LaRue house collapses in a tidal wave of sewage that drives away all the auctioneers, and the brothers Smuntz even think, for a moment, that the Mouse has been killed in the carnage too. That possible pay-off of their manic endeavour brings no satisfaction. What it does bring them though, is their father’s lucky string. They reconcile, humbled. And though they think the Mouse is gone, its over-the-top fate elicits more sympathy from them than their initial intrusion. Slapstick has that effect.
There’s something different in the way that audiences love a pratfaller. From Chaplin to McCarthy and the Smuntz’ small space in between, our feelings are stirred differently when we see sublimely ridiculous suffering. Everyone knows the Mel Brooks quote that tragedy is when I cut my finger, and comedy is when you fall into an open manhole and die, but is this inherently cynical? Rather, tragedy is personal, but comedy is universal, we know that we’re all one humiliating stumble away from falling down a manhole at any time, despite our best intentions. It brings us together. Think of the lad slipping on the ice live on RTE news. Maybe we haven’t all done exactly that, but we’ve all done something to ourselves that’s equal parts painful and humiliating, another fine mess that we’ve gotten ourselves into. When Lars, Ernie and the Mouse understand and accept that, they find their way forward, an unexpected future in a new factory that makes string cheese. They had to get through their own respective nests being turned up with the plough, to see the strands between them.
Verbinski has said he enjoyed the strong-willed tete-a-tetes with producers. Ultimately, the director was able to see through some version of his vision, a sincere story of the relationship between his main characters as individuals struggling to live up to the legacy of their father, while still getting in the Tom and Jerry stuff his bosses wanted. His strange sensibilities stood to him, helping him forge a successful career, and often with the big studios. We don’t always find the promised joy we initially envision. But in the heel of the hunt, we sometimes get what we need.