Old Man Smuntz (William Hickey) has his funeral today, and his sons are so inept that they drop the coffin when acting as pallbearers, sending the corpse flying out and down a manhole, whereupon it is washed away with the rainwater towards the sea. Not the best way to start looking after the family business, and indeed Ernie Smuntz (Nathan Lane) has no intention of carrying out his father's wishes, though his sibling Lars (Lee Evans) does. Ernie wants to sell the string factory, but is prevented from doing so - how about the valuable family home, then?
If you ever watched Tom and Jerry cartoons and thought the mouse was the villain rather than the cat trying to rid the world of this vermin, then here was the movie for you, a live action version of those cartoons created with all the special effects skill the era could conjure up. In that way it was similar to the mega-hit Home Alone, but while that success was more vile sadism packaged for family audiences, here director Gore Verbinski and writer Adam Rifkin recognised that the way to make this palatable was to approach it as if it were a horror movie, with the tiny rodent replacing the accustomed monster.
You had the old dark house, the hapless victims, the sense of morality, and of course the violence, though as with the John Hughes Christmas box office bonanza rendering this in live action robbed a lot of cartoon slapstick of its humour, and while Mousehunt was funnier than that movie, it wasn't exactly a laugh riot because you didn't quite sympathise with the characters enough to care deeply about their injuries, but then again you didn't quite feel they deserved the indignities heaped upon them when life seemed to be so determined to persuade them to give up on any dream they might have had of making something of themselves.
Ernie is forced back into the string business when his job as a prestigious chef ends after the mayor dies on biting into a large cockroach hidden in his meal, not Ernie's fault but an early indication of how he is going to be punished for his arrogance and Lars is going to be punished for his naivety. It's a very dark world they inhabit, both in terms of what occurs and how it looks, with the art direction emphasising an appearance that could just as well double for some creepy old chiller from anywhere between the nineteen-forties and the nineties, deliberately vague to add a sense of much needed unreality - after all, if this were truly convincing, it's curious that it would be too depressing to contemplate.
Once Ernie and Lars find out the old mansion house is a valuable relic, they set about establishing an auction for it where they believe they could make millions. Just one problem remains: a mouse, which they decide to get rid of because no one wants one of those infesting their property, but as you can imagine for these bumblers (the spirit of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy is invoked) that is easier said than done. Rifkin's script was inventive where it counted: the setpieces, which included such spectacles as a room full of mousetraps being set off simultaneously, a mishap with an out of control bathtub, and most notably exterminator Christopher Walken (who eats mouseshit in more ways than one) sent smashing through the house by the antagonist's scheming. This is one smart, small, furry mammal, and only gets smarter the further the story progresses so that the happy ending comes as a genuine surprise: they probably deserved a break after all that. Music by Alan Silvestri (one of his best scores).
Born Gregor Verbinski, this visually inventive director got his start in advertising before making his feature debut in 1997 with the anarchic comedy Mousehunt. He helmed the critically-maligned thriller The Mexican and hit horror remake The Ring, while swashbuckling epic Pirates of the Caribbean, with Johnny Depp, spawned a multi-million dollar franchise. He left that after the third instalment to make his first animation, the comedy Western Rango which he followed with a live action one, mega-flop The Lone Ranger, then another flop, the horror remake A Cure for Wellness. Verbinski was also creator of Budweiser's frog TV ad campaign.