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There have been some surprisingly odd films produced by Steven Speilberg during his career – he’s not always as mainstream as to make Jurassic Park movies. He has the clout to get a film made and made lavishly if he wants to – look at 1990’s Joe Vs. the Volcano, which was seriously loopy on a very big budget.

However, there is always the threat of these filmmaking protégés showing too much of the Spielberg touch in their films, as opposed to their own styles.

[Present-day note: In my first draft I wrote a long parenthetical – unpublished and long since gone – calling Joe Dante an example of someone becoming Spielberg Lite, after his start with exploitation films Hollywood Boulevard, Piranha and The Howling. Working for Spielberg went from being part of Dante’s career to being almost all of his career; contrast that with Robert Zemeckis, who made a conscious decision to work on his own in between his Spielberg-produced stuff, and who has a more varied filmography. What kinds of films would or could Dante have made if he hadn’t been working so much for Spielberg?]

The above comes to mind because I’ve just seen the bizarrely funny MouseHunt, the first comedy from DreamWorks, the company Spielberg co-founded. And yes, it’s funny – both ha-ha funny and scratch-your-head funny. You’ll probably enjoy it, but you may wonder why. It’s strange and intentionally ugly, but also surprisingly endearing…if you’re in the right mood for it, and if you can stomach one really sick sight gag near the start involving a dinner.

In a world with enough recognizable touches of the world we know to make it clear the film happens in its own subtly different place, two down-and-out brothers (Nathan Lane and Lee Evans) inherit an ancient string-weaving factory and a run-down house from their late father Rudolf Smuntz (the late William Hickey). The factory is about to go out of business, and due to Dad’s death-bed demands they can’t sell it…but they learn the house was built by a famous 19th-century architect, and they decide to make their money from renovating and selling that instead.

But as the snazzy ads make abundantly clear, they meet their match in a surprising opponent – what the press materials call “the world’s smartest and meanest mouse who has no intention of relocating without a fight.” War is declared between the two sides, and the men bring every weapon to bear – mouse traps, one tough cat, an intense exterminator (Christopher Walken), a bug bomb, a nail gun, and a vacuum.

The unnamed mouse is amazing. He is probably given as much personality as is possible without making him talk or some such anthropomorphic nonsense. He is a mouse, but he sure is some mouse, and he is cool and resourceful in the face of a threat to his life.

In keeping with the silent mouse-star, much of the film is inspired by silent or near-silent comedy acts such as Laurel and Hardy. And what’s old is new again: after all, the Home Alone shtick in John Hughes movies should be getting old now, driven into the ground by Flubber and other obnoxious movies. I’d much rather see this.

The film isn’t afraid to have its own style for locations and characters. (Even the special effects have an earthy feel, rare for computer-aided effects work.) The cast is not made up of beautiful people. This is one of the most eccentric groups of performers in an American film lately…and they all have character in their faces. Among the cast only Lane is really well known, though all are experienced. [Here I was tempted to compare MouseHunt to Jeunet and Caro’s Delicatessen, another flick with an eccentric cast; alas, I feared it’d be a reference unknown and unknowable to 99.7% of my readership, in the Northeast Oregon semi-desert. I mean, Delicatessen had maybe played Portland, maybe, but no way would videos of it be available in Hermiston. Still, I’d wanted to make that comparison, and now I have. Onward.]

The film breaks two rules of comedy – the rule that earth colors aren’t funny, and Roger Ebert’s Rule of Funny Names, which says that “Funny names usually indicate desperation at the script level.” You know, this film needs to be funny, so let’s have funny names. Well, MouseHunt breaks these rules (Smuntz!), yet survives the transgression because it has an endearing attitude and flashes of originality. It’s illuminating to look at what the film doesn’t do – it has no outright villains, which is rare and refreshing, and it doesn’t seem just to dump in clichéd “emotional” moments that tell us “Hey! You should really care for these people!”

Still, the attempts at storytelling symbolism are just as bizarre as most everything else here. The idea seems to be that we can’t quite get into the head of Rudolf Smuntz – and we certainly can’t get into the head of that mouse. So we don’t really know what motivated the late Smuntz’s attachment to string, for example, or what the mouse actually has planned until the very, very end – which we reach by a sight gag that references the Spielberg-produced remake of Cape Fear!

This is the first film directed by Gore Verbinski – best known so far for directing the Budweiser frogs. I have no idea what this guy’s career’s going to be like based on this double bill.

Composer Alan Silvestri – who has done music for Back to the Future, Predator, The Bodyguard, Forrest Gump and Contact – has written a pretty catchy “caper” theme for MouseHunt which we’ll probably hear next year in commercials for other very intensely physical comedies. The theme has a surprising weight to it, perhaps reflecting the fact that these are unhappy characters in an unhappy world. His music for the final scene changes from this approach, though, and has a John Williams sunniness to it. There’s a flute thing Williams does that’s in the cue; you’ll recognize it when you hear it.

No matter how well this film does, something that is so determinedly itself deserves attention.