Inside a large country house live a colony of cute little mice who have prospered under their wise old Elder. Now the ageing rodent ponders who should succeed him as leader? Should it be brave and feisty Gerald (Megumi Hayashibara) who leads daily raids stealing food from right under the whiskers of monstrous house-cat Raon? Or perhaps kind, thoughtful George (Minami Takayama) who takes time to ensure even the lowliest mouse is cared for? To answer that question the Elder dispatches George and Gerald, along with their panicky companions Walter (Inuko Inuyama) and Chenbaren (Kappei Yamaguchi) into the great outdoors on a quest to capture the legendary Dragon of Light. Their rivalry is further complicated when bubbly girl mouse Marie Lou (Mika Kikuchi) infiltrates the group in search of adventure. Back home Hanna (Chika Fujimura), the Elder's granddaughter, worries for their safety. Sure enough an unexpected turn of events leaves George and Gerald separated and lost, forced to grow up fast in order to survive.
With lush painterly backgrounds, intricate character designs and gorgeous fluid animation, Mouse Story: The Adventures of George and Gerald bears all the hallmarks of past work by veteran animator Masami Hata of the Sanrio studio. From the late Seventies to the Eighties, Sanrio - the Japanese toy company that unleashed Hello Kitty merchandise upon a defenseless world - made a concerted effort to steal the animation crown away from the then-ailing Disney studio with a run of lavish feature films. Unlike the majority of anime at the time (or indeed today) Sanrio films utilized full twenty-four frames-per-second animation with routinely stunning if costly results. Alas, none of their films made much impact at the international box-office although several became cult favourites among anime buffs including Hata's The Mouse and His Child (1977), Ringing Bell (1978) and The Sea Prince and the Fire Child (1981), Osamu Tezuka's Fantastic Adventures of Unico (1981) and the bizarre, pseudonymously-directed musical fantasia Winds of Change (1978).
Following the disastrous US co-production Little Nemo (1991) Sanrio retreated to smaller productions aired on Japanese cable TV. However Mouse Story, a fifty-two minute long TV special, is a high quality production with appeal for animation fans young and old. On a technical level the film has charm to spare including stunning faux-multiplane shots and dozens of delightful characters with vivid personalities, intricately crafted by chara designer Toshio Hirata. Beautiful use of shading lends the two-dimensional protagonists a tactile three-dimensional quality. The art style is European by way of classic Disney but the story reflects Japanese values of duty, fealty, self-sacrifice and teamwork for the sake of survival. Indeed the quasi-feudal society of mice depicted here seem straight out of an old samurai movie. Aspects of Mouse Story exhibit some of the serene, pastoral lyricism of Hayao Miyazaki as George, Gerald and Marie Lou delight in the wonders of nature. Yet counterbalanced with these tranquil moments the mice learn tough survival lessons from Alex (Kenji Utsumi) an aged, battle-hardened country mouse. Given Alex exhibits such great knowledge and clear leadership skills, many viewers may wonder why no considers him a likely candidate to succeed the Elder over our two callow young heroes. Perhaps his age leaves him out of the running?
Nevertheless the ensuing misadventures in the woods manage to make the hitherto thoughtful but scatterbrained George a little tough and the brave but reckless Gerald a little more considerate. Setting their rivalry aside the pair team up to take a Seven Samurai-like stand against a ravenous weasel that threatens the group, employing makeshift spears, bows and arrows. On the downside the film's female characters are rooted in conservative archetypes from the Seventies. Docile, nurturing Hanna pines away quietly for George and while Marie Lou exhibits a little more sass and spirit she is also a flighty, self-absorbed 'girly-girl' who frets over her manicure. With the arrival of the Dragon of Light the film veers into psychedelic mysticism that jars a little with an otherwise naturalistic fable. Yet one ought to make allowances for a cartoon about talking mice in clothes and Mouse Story: The Adventures of George and Gerald is consistently engaging.