leave a comment --Frank Lovece
If something about this animated children's film screams "direct-to-video," congratulate yourself on your intuition: It was originally scheduled to be a 1999 kidvid release. Stiffly animated and featuring uninspired songs and the kind of clueless character designs that find contemporary men wearing big, organ-grinder mustaches, this adaptation of E.B. White's classic novel doesn't even live up to the Hanna-Barbera CHARLOTTE'S WEB, let alone 1999's STUART LITTLE. Trumpeter swans Mother (voice of Mary Steenburgen) and Father (Jason Alexander) welcome their three new cygnets into the world. One daughter showcases a good voice; the jazz-savvy dad names her Ella. The other has "good pipes and bad grammar," so he calls her Billie in what seems like some astonishingly tasteless crack about Ebonics and Billie Holiday. The final child turns out to be mute (or as Father says, both here and in the book, "defective"). Dubbed Louie as in Armstrong he befriends young human Sam Beaver (Sam Gifaldi), who attends the kind of summer camp where unsupervised preteens cook over open fires and moor their rowboats next to a killer waterfall. (Who designed this place, the Marquis de Sade?) The swans migrate south to a lake near Billings, Mont., where Louie is reacquainted with a squirrel he met over the summer (that's right it's one of those amazing migrating squirrels), and Louie's parents worry that without being able to make a trumpeting sound, he won't find a mate. Indeed, while Louie has his heart set on Serena (Reese Witherspoon) and she seems sweet on him, Serena's parents push her toward the arrogant Boyd (Seth Green). So Louie goes to Billings, where Sam's teacher, Mrs. Hammerbotham (Carol Burnett), teaches him to read and write, and Louie's father steals a trumpet from a music store, so Louie can have some sort of voice. Louie learns to trumpet fabulously, and flies to Boston to earn money so that his father can pay back the store owner. The musical swan becomes a star, but can he break free of disreputable manager Monty (Joe Mantegna) and get home in time to save both his father's honor and Serena from a loveless marriage? Hokey enough to make a nine-year-old squirm, the movie offers admirable lessons about tolerance and overcoming adversity, but they're uttered in such artless, eat-your-vegetables dialogue that it sounds like scolding. While Louie himself grows up to become personable and likable, the movie itself never comes close. Among its life lessons: Girls go for musicians.