‘The Cat in the Hat,’ the children’s book written by Dr. Seuss in 1957, has been recently updated, complete with product placement and CGI graphics. Unfortunately, very little of the charm and elegant simplicity that made the original a classic survives in the new film version.
Like the book, the film of ‘The Cat in the Hat’ begins with children Sally (Dakota Fanning) and Conrad (Spencer Breslin) bored out of their minds. Their single mother (Kelly Preston, in a role expanded from the abstract legs that represented the kids’ mother in the book) is a harried real estate agent who insists that her children not dirty the house. Quinn (Alec Baldwin) is their neighbor and Mom’s suitor, eager to control the family and have troublemaking Conrad sent off to military school if he dirties the house.
Enter the Cat (Mike Myers), who is on a mission to teach the children how to have fun. The Cat makes a mess, the children must figure out how to clean it up before Mom gets home, Quinn tries to stop them, and naturally, hijinks ensue.
Myers plays the Cat as over-the-top as Jim Carrey played the Grinch in that other Brian Grazer-produced Seuss adaptation. This is certainly not Myers’ best work and throughout the film he seems to be searching for a catch phrase to elevate his Cat to the level of other, catch phrase-worthy characters invented by Myers in the past, but nothing clicks. Incidentally, Myers does his funniest work in the film playing the personas assumed by the Cat.
Fanning has already established herself as an actress of such poise that her part here seems calculated and phoned-in, like the actress knows that the work is beneath her talent. After proving her ablity to play little girls with intelligence beyond their years, we are ready to see her branch out. The ultimate effect of Fanning’s presence is a feeling of deception.
Breslin, who plays her brother, exudes less intelligence but more honesty, and it is his earnest portrayal that saves the film from descending into sarcastic dry wit. Overall, the kids are better than the adults, which is good, since this is a movie for kids. Fans of Disney Channel’s ‘Even Stevens’ will enjoy a hilarious scene starring the kid who plays Beans on the TV show.
The script is mediocre and the jokes have all been invented specifically for the film. Refusing to be guided by Seuss’s faith in the farce of the story itself to provide the humor, the writers (Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer) load the dialogue with one-liners that we’ve all heard before. They invent unnecessary characters to hammer a minimalist parable into the traditional Hollywood structure. I saw this movie in a theater filled with children and even they did not laugh often.
The best aspect of ‘The Cat in the Hat’ on film is the set design. Director Bo Welch (previously a production designer for ‘Edward Scissorhands’ and ‘Ghostbusters II,’ among others) serves up a complete world of lilac-colored carbon-copy homes and lime-green Ford Foci. The stores in the town of Anville are indentified by giant icons rather than lettered signs. For example, the hardware store has above it a giant foam hammer and bent foam nails pounded halfway into a piece of foam wood. It’s very true to the spirit of Seuss, and it seems to also be a reference to the pop art of the 1960s and the new envisioning of the American culture, specifically in the realms of advertising and the nuclear family.
We are due for a re-envisioning of these issues today.The visual world of this film is the only aspect that truly addresses these issues in a Seussian way. Which is to say, by not expicitly discussing them
‘The Cat in the Hat’ is a story, like so many before it, about a stranger who comes and pulls people out of their ruts by teaching them new ways of thinking. The Cat stands for balance between creation and destruction. He encourages his students to throw out the old, boring things and be surprised at all the new things that may come when one faces the world with glee.
The theme is optimistic, and since 1957, millions of children have become aware of the world of knowledge available to them through reading a book about the limitless possibilities of creativity, fun and balance. The tale is especially poignant these days, when kids have more to do than ever before, and at the same time are more mindlessly and existentially bored.
I wish I could say that ‘The Cat in the Hat’ movie fufills the promise of its masterpiece predecessor, but the sad fact is that it does not. Hopefully, it’ll at least amuse the millions of kids who force their parents to take them to the movies.
And thus we see why this film might never succeed: How can we expect a high-budget film, complete with marketing blitz and product placement to teach us about the joys of creating our own fun? That’s almost as ridiculous as a giant cat in a red-and-white striped stovepipe hat.