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Mouseterfully Done 

Stuart 2 is no ratty sequel.

It took the creative giants behind Men in Black II five years to come up with a flat and uninspired sequel that not only treads familiar ground, but does so with far less pizzazz than the original. It took the forces behind Stuart Little 2 a mere two years to unveil their imaginative and engaging follow-up, which revolves around a decidedly fresh story line that presents its stars with new challenges, obstacles, and emotional opportunities.

The new film finds Stuart (the voice of Michael J. Fox and an outstanding team of digital artists at Sony Pictures Imageworks) happily ensconced as a member of the Little household, which, in addition to Mom (Geena Davis), Dad (Hugh Laurie), George (Jonathan Lipnicki), and Snowbell the cat (voiced by Nathan Lane), now includes a baby sister. But George has his own friends, and Mom is overprotective, refusing to let Stuart explore and grow. Stuart longs for a friend who's . . . well, his own size.

As Stuart is driving home from school one day, an injured bird suddenly tumbles into the passenger seat next to him. Margalo (voiced by Melanie Griffith) is on the run from the Falcon (voiced by James Woods). The Littles welcome her into their home, and Stuart experiences his first crush. But the independent Margalo is not all she seems, and one day she disappears. The film's funniest sequences find Stuart and Snowbell venturing out into the world to look for her.

Even if Stuart Little 2 lacked other attributes, the digital artistry alone would make it worth the price of admission. There's no question that state-of-the-art computer-animation technology has raised anthropomorphism to a whole new level, and while no film may ever match the disarming charm and emotional appeal of the first Babe, Stuart Little 2 does a masterful job of combining digital imagery and voice performance to create totally believable animal characters. Snowball, of course, is a real cat (actually, five Chinchilla Persians were employed, each one specializing in a particular task), but without the seamless animatronic work and Lane's purrfect voice inflections, he could have ended up as hokey as the felines in the dismal Cats & Dogs.

Stuart and Snowbell present the perfect marriage of digital artistry, animatronic advances, voice performance, and in the case of Snowbell, animal training. Falcon comes across as more of a traditional cartoon figure, but what he lacks in facial expression is more than made up for in Woods's menacing voice. And in her first stab at voice acting, Griffith scores big-time, managing to sound innocent, friendly, down-to-earth, and sultry all at the same time.

The human actors don't fare nearly as well as their furry and winged co-stars, partially because they are saddled with one-dimensional roles. While Lipnicki brings a believable kid-ness to his part and Laurie gives Mr. Little an eccentric sweetness, Davis seems almost like a Stepford mom -- so smiley and loving, she seems programmed. Children -- the natural audience for this movie -- probably won't even notice, and there are enough adult-friendly ideas and humorous lines of dialogue that parents will nonetheless be entertained.

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