The Mouse And His Child

Director: Charles Swenson, Fred Wolf 
Voice Cast:
Peter Ustinov, Cloris Leachman, Sally Kellerman, John Carradine

When we are young, our minds are easily influenced. The world to us at this time of our lives is still so new, so filled with new discoveries that it is easy for anything we might take for granted as an adult would burn itself permanently into a child's brain. I remember the first time I witnessed something that instantly branded itself into my brain, and haunted me for years and years afterwards, right up to the present time. I couldn't have been more than five years old when it happened. It was one morning when I was watching Sesame Street on television. Up to that point, I had been used to the show's comic sensibility and I was not prepared for what I was about to see. A segment came on that I hadn't seen before, and it was about a flower. The two and a half minute segement consisted of multiple shots of the same particular flower, showing water dripping from it in shots very close to the camera lens. That by itself may not sound very haunting, but what made it haunting was the music that played over all these shots. It was music of a kind I had never heard of before. I didn't know I was listening to classical music for the first time. All I knew at the time was that the combination of seeing this flower while the music playing was achingly beautiful. Part of me wanted to turn away from what was giving me this sensation, while another part of me couldn't take my eyes and ears off of what I was witnessing. In fact, whenever Sesame Street replayed this segment in the months that followed, each time I was filled with the same creepy yet transfixed feelings.

Years later, I found out the classic piece that was played during that segment - it was Vivaldi's Guitar Concerto In D Major, 2nd Movement, the same music that also haunted a lot of other kids when they watched the made-for-TV movie The Bermuda Depths more than thirty years ago. Anyway, that flower segment (which you can watch here, if you're curious) was not by far the only thing I saw on television as a child that haunted me. Sesame Street had other segments that I found haunting, like "Lower Case N", and "Daddy Dear". Then there was the animated movie The Mouse And His Child. I will never forget watching that movie... at least the parts of the movie that I saw. That's because I remember flipping the channels on the family television set, and coming across the movie part of the way through. Not long after tuning in, the movie played a scene that blew my mind. Seems the mouse and the child of the title were examining the label of a dog food can. On the label of the can, there was a smaller picture of a dog holding a can of the dog food. On that can, there was an even smaller picture of a dog holding a can of the dog food. It went on and on. Anyway, the mouse and his child decided to look deep into that picture, so that they could see "infinity". The camera zoomed into the picture, increasing the size of every dog and the can it held one by one for a long period of time. It seemed the procession would be endless, but then it stopped, and the two mice finally saw the end of "infinity" - which was their own reflection on the shining surface under the peeling label of the can.

There was another part of what I saw that burned itself into my brain, but revealing it would be a major plot spoiler, so I will just say it was something you don't expect to see in a kiddie cartoon. Anyway, I remember I didn't watch the rest of the movie for reasons I have long forgotten - The Mouse And His Childa decision that made me kick myself for years afterwards. If a movie could make such a deep impression on me with two scenes, what could the entire movie do? So I looked for the movie. Believe me, I tried looking for the movie everywhere, but I couldn't find a copy (at least one that was affordable.) But thanks to the magic of the Internet, I managed to watch it online. Maybe not the ideal way to watch a movie, but to me it was better than not watching the movie at all. The story of The Mouse And His Child starts off at a toy store, with the owner putting out a new toy on display - a clockwork papa mouse that holds with both its hands a child mouse. The other toys at the store, which come to life at midnight when no human is around, welcome the new toys despite the child mouse asking a couple of heavy questions like, "Papa, what are we?" Anyway, for reasons that are never made clear, the owner of the toy store throws the mouse and his child into the garbage. When they arrive at the garbage dump, the two clockwork mice soon find themselves in the grip of garbage dump resident Manny (Ustinov), a rat who has built himself an empire by capturing other thrown-away clockwork toys and treating them as slaves. The mouse and his child soon manage to escape, and they have plenty of adventures along the way thanks to meeting eccentric characters like a frog that tells fortunes and a mechanical-minded muskrat, which may be the key for their quest to become "self winding". But Manny the rat is never far behind during all this, and it may become necessary for the mouse and his child to somehow stop him once and for all.

With a plot description like that, as well as the title of the movie being The Mouse And His Child, you probably got a reasonable idea of how the movie will play out. And I am here to tell you that what you have got in mind is almost certainly wrong. Although the movie claims to be about a (clockwork) mouse and his child, it really isn't that for the most part. Oh sure, these two characters are in just about every scene, but for various reasons, the movie isn't really about them. One of those reasons is because these characters are two of the thinnest central characters I have seen in a movie for a long time. They have hardly any dialogue, for one thing. They probably only speak about several dozen words in the course of the entire movie, certainly not more than a hundred words. And during the few times when they open their mouths and speak, we learn very little about them. About as deep as they get to revealing their inner thoughts and feelings is when the child mouse asks his father, "Papa, is this the real world?" and his father responds with "I don't know, son." The rest of the movie pretty much involves the other characters of the movie taking control of each scene and doing all of the talking and action, while the mouse and his child stay silent and allow themselves to be pushed into whatever situation gets into the mind of the other characters. As a result of this, I found it extremely hard to care about the mouse and his child. All that we learn that makes them tick is their mechanical innards that guide their movements - we almost never get to know what they are really thinking or feeling about anything that happens to them. These are not characters - they are props used to make an excuse for the movie to travel from one scene to another.

I suspect that kids, who have traditionally been a lot more accepting of substandard entertainment than us adults, will notice all the same that the movie isn't about the mouse and child for the most part, and will be somewhat confused. I think that this is likely in part due to the fact that the rest of The Mouse And His Child doesn't have that much in it to distract them from the many flaws to be found. There isn't that much that will appeal to their imagination or make them think, qualities that are often found in classic family films from Star Wars to Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory. Oh, I suppose there is that one scene with the dog food can that I mentioned three paragraphs ago. Seeing it again as an adult, it still manages to be the animated equivalent of Wonka's "freak out" boat sequence. But there's nothing else in the movie that comes across anywhere near as deep as that. Instead, I am sure that children in the audience will be thinking just how incredibly dark and dismal the tone of the movie is. There's nothing wrong with a family film having some dark moments - nobody I know has objected to the dark moments in Star Wars and Wonka. But The Mouse And His Child manages to have a cynical tone for almost all of its running time. The list of grim attributes is endless. We have characters that are killed on and off screen, characters are beaten unconscious (or worse), there's slavery, and the rat villain of the movie pretty much gets away scot free without any real punishment at the end of the movie. Younger kids may be seriously freaked out by some of the going-ons in the movie. At the very least, they'll find it tough going and come to the conclusion that the world is a cold and cruel place at the end of the movie.

Perhaps you are thinking, "Well, this is an animated movie. Children will see through the animation that what they are seeing is not 'real', and they'll be able to accept it." Perhaps if the movie was done by other hands, this might have been true. But as it was done here, the animation drags down the viewer to the murky and gloomy depths the story lurks in. This is one of the darkest, dreariest animated exercises I have ever seen. Most of the movie looks like it was photographed through a blurry and uncleaned camera lens. Even if the photography had been better, this world would still look uncheerful. The colors in the backgrounds look washed out and cold in tone, and the various animated characters don't look much brighter. Even when the events of the movie turn from wintertime to spring near the end of the movie, the feeling isn't much more cheerful. Even if the colors were brighter, the movie would still suffer from the style of art, from the painted backgrounds to the animated characters. The backgrounds are often pretty skimpy on details, as well as the animated characters. When these characters move around, the lack of smoothness made me think of the animation done on good old Sesame Street in the 1970s instead of animation done for a feature-length theatrical movie, even when you consider the general quality of other theatrical animated movies of this period. In short, this movie fails in just about every aspect that you can think of. I just know that if I had seen the rest of The Mouse And His Child all those years ago, I seriously doubt that I would have been obsessed enough to seek it out and watch it again as an adult.

(Posted May 20, 2015)

Michael Stakely sent this in:

"I just read your review of that film and can empathize with your tale of being haunted by it because of your encounter with it as a child. Not because I saw the film as a child but because of the book which it was based on. I suspect it might come closer to justifying the real estate the film version has taken up in your brain all those many years if you ever wanted to check it out.

"At any rate, I read The Mouse and His Child back in middle school and still not only recall portions of the book but the actual reading of it. I may have read it once or twice in the decades since but particular sequences are almost certainly permanently etched into my brain and from the first time I read it no less.

"The dog food label for one. That had a much larger role in the book than in the film with much of it being a deep explanation of the religious movement that sprang up based around "The Last Visible Dog". The Mouse and His Child has been described as the only children's book which doubles as a treatise on existential philosophy and the film doesn't particularly do a good job of carrying that across. Manny's ultimate fate was the same in each version but the book made it quite obvious how hellish he would consider that fate while the film doesn't really set up the character that way. The shrew armies are another instance that didn't come across as well because they were portrayed as borderline comic relief rather than the murderous lunatics of the book.

"As for the other moment you mention burning into your brain, I would hazard a guess that it was either "PEANUT BRITTLE!" or the parts harvesting. The former was more violent than I recall the book sequence being while the latter actually managed to be less."

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Check Amazon for Russell Hoban source novel

See also: The Brothers Lionheart, Hugo The Hippo, A Rat's Tale