“Even Mice Belong in Heaven” is the most adorable and unusual animated offering for kids this year.
A Czech production based on a children’s book by Iva Procházková, it’s an afterlife tale. And unlike “All Dogs Go to Heaven,” it’s almost wholly-invested in presenting a deeply-detailed look at heaven for animals, a charming hereafter of amusement park and moral tests in the “Forest of Forests.”
And what’s your prize for examining your life among the hippo, crocs, flamingos and other fauna? “A movie ticket.” That personalized trip to the cinema is a genuine lump in your throat moment, a feat few animated films from Hollywood can manage these days.
There’s something mesmerizing about the handcrafted look of stop-motion animation that transfixes children and that adults — some of us, anyway — never grow out of. “Mice” is more reminiscent of the European “Peter and the Wolf” stop-motion (models, hand-posed frame by frame) short than the recent classics of the genre, by Aardman (“Wallace & Gromit”) or Laika (“Coraline”). The artists’ handiwork shows in every frame.
Wizzy the mouse (voiced in the film’s English language version by Simona Berman) is forever proving to her brothers, her friend Mole and others in her world that she’s brave, even though she’s “always afraid, like every other mouse.”
She’d like to be heroic like her mouse-stached father, whose exploits are taught in mouse school. To prove it, she slips into the abandoned playground and snatches a tuft from fur from a sleeping fox.
But the fox awakens, and despite being cheered on by the animals she’s trying to impress, she finds herself in the foggy white purgatory of heaven. A long-horned goat checks her in, assures her that yes, she’s dead and no, that she, the goat isn’t “God.”
When Wizzy discovers that she’s been sent to the same place as the fox she assumes killed her, she is seriously put-out. But events conspire to tie Miss “I don’t need any help!” and the stammering White Belly (Graham Halstead) together for their journey, a “Pilgrim’s Progress” through obstacles, rules and rites of passage before they get their tickets to the cinema.
They learn of each other’s shortcomings and “issues,” and as they deal with helpful crocs, rageaholic badgers and pestering peers of their own genus, they prove their worth and face their species’ prejudices.
“Heaven is what you make of it,” a croc tells them, before reminding each to wash up, especially their ears.
“You cannot go back,” a sage lobster intones. “You must go where your nose points, not your tail.”
The theology is childlike and mostly upbeat. The biggest sin either of these two must shake is their childish phobia about baths. Yes, that’s an issue in Czechoslovakia, too. Heaven is largely one big bathtime, with hot springs hot tubs and the like. Mice, it turns out, are especially touchy about having to wash their ears.
The translated dialogue only occasionally flirts with funny or profound. The fox is warned by a legend of the vulpine race about “making friends with FOOD” (a mouse).
But the whimsical, hand-made realization of heaven and the life-affirming “meaning” of it is kid-friendly in the extreme, and that makes “Even Mice Belong in Heaven” a charmer worth tracking down (in theaters and streaming) this holiday season.
Cast: The voices of Simona Berman, Graham Halstead, Ryan Andes, Marc Thompson, Major Attaway, Mary O’Brady
Credits: Directed by Jan Bubenicek and Denisa Grimmová, scripted by Alice Nellis, Richard Malatinsky and Jeffrey Hilton, based on the book by Iva Procházková. A Samuel Goldwyn release.
Running time: 1:20