If only “Stuart Little 2” were awful, the movie itself would provide marvelous material for a critic wanting to trash it. At one point, for example, the titular mouse is trapped on a garbage barge; can you imagine what somebody ill-disposed to the flick could make of that? At another moment one of the characters responds to an admiring remark about the Littles’ cheerily stupid way of greeting one another with the comment, “Nauseating is more like it.” Very quotable. Unfortunately, in this instance one has to avoid the temptation. Even those (this reviewer included) who found “Stuart Little,” the surprise 1999 smash about a talking white rodent adopted by a human family, too sweet and cloying for comfort should feel differently about the sequel. “Stuart Little 2” is a charming diversion for every family with small children. At a mere 72 minutes, it’s more compact than the first installment, and also more clever and efficient in melding its saccharine elements–consisting of a series a variations on the theme of friendship–with the sort of gentle adventure that will excite moppets without frightening them. And while you might expect that a confection that tykes of four or five will adore might prove indigestible to adults, writer Bruce Joel Rubin has included a substantial role for that wonderfully self-centered, snide house cat Snowbell, who gives a dose of spice to what otherwise would be an ocean of sugar.

As the picture begins, Stuart (voiced by Michael J. Fox) is extremely happy with the Littles–hubby Hugh Laurie, wife Geena Davis and son George (Jonathan Lipnicki)–but having a bit of difficulty fitting in with youngsters who tower around him. He’s more than willing, therefore, to bond with a creature his own size–orphan sparrow Margalo (Melanie Griffith), whom he takes home after she’s injured in a scuffle with a nasty falcon (James Woods). The Littles happily embrace Margalo, but she turns out to be the larcenous falcon’s partner in crime, eventually disappearing with Mrs. Little’s wedding ring. Stuart, believing her kidnaped, recruits the reluctant Snowbell to accompany him in rescuing her, and a high-altitude chase results; be assured that a happy ending is in the offing.

What’s surprising about “Stuart Little 2” is how smoothly Rubin and director Rob Minkoff have put the picture together; children’s films frequently have a haphazard, disorganized feel, but that’s certainly not the case here. The various story strands are expertly woven into a nearly seamless whole, and the mingling of cute, exciting and slapstick elements is very nicely gauged. (Bits that will appeal mostly to older members of the audience are also introduced dextrously, without interrupting the flow. There’s a very funny gag regarding the treatment accorded Stuart’s miniature car when it’s abandoned on a New York City street, for example. And kids are hardly the ones who will appreciate Stuart and Margolo getting just a tad romantic while watching the famous kiss-by-the-sea sequence between James Stewart and the deceptive Kim Novak from Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”) From the technical perspective the movie is virtually flawless, conjoining live action and computer-generated effects with remarkable skill. And the cast seems entirely comfortable with the material. Fox takes a very low-key, subdued approach to the title character that might strike some as a trifle bland, but it’s probably preferable to a more frantic turn, and Davis, Laurie and Lipnicki keep a better rein on the goofier side of the human family members than in the first flick. Griffith, rather unexpectedly, is perfectly on-target as Margalo, and Woods gives the falcon sternness without getting overbearing about it. Best of all are the feline impersonators. Nathan Lane couldn’t be better as the sharp-tongued Snowbell; he effortlessly captures the mixture of cynicism, arrogance and cowardice that Rubin’s built into the part, and gets the picture’s biggest laughs without even trying. Steve Zahn contributes an amusing cameo as Snowbell’s zany steeet-wise pal Monty.

Colorful, energetic and sweetly whimsical, “Stuart Little 2” proves the rare sequel that’s better than its predecessor. It may be the very apotheosis of cuteness, but if you can tolerate that sort of thing, it’s a great example of it.