The Cat in the Hat
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   G A R Y   J O H N S O N

Back in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, Hollywood churned out films in several lengths -- one-reelers, two-reelers, three-reelers, etc. in addition to feature-length films. B features sometimes were as short as 50 minutes. Films were packaged together as an entire evening's worth of entertainment. These packages included newsreels, cartoons, serials, shorts, and more. Today, the only viable type of theatrical film is the feature film. All films must stand alone on a playbill (among the dozen or more options at the local megaplex). As a result, every film project must yield a feature length film -- or it won't play in commercial movie theaters. (That's the conventional wisdom anyway, although I think it's mainly an indication of the lack of imagination in Hollywood. I think audiences could easily understand that films come in variable lengths.)

This brings us to the new filmization of The Cat in the Hat, based on Dr. Seuss' children's book that utilized a vocabulary of just 220 words and introduced us to a fantastic, heavily-stylized cartoon world where a talking cat could instantly materialize and saunter into someone's house on a rainy day:

"I know some good games we could play,"
Said the cat.
"I know some new tricks,"
Said the Cat in the Hat.
"A lot of good tricks.
I will show them to you.
Your mother
Will not mind at all if I do."

The concept makes for a great children's book. And it's a fun book for adults to read to children. But it's a slim little book. If 100% faithful, a film adaptation would last only around 15 minutes. However, Hollywood doesn't know how to make short films anymore, so The Cat in the Hat must somehow be filled out, elaborated upon, until it nears 90 minutes.

I'm not necessarily against elaborations of this sort. Ernest Hemingway's slim little short story The Killers was made into a great film in 1946 by director Robert Siodmak (and starring Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner), and Don Siegel directed an excellent remake in 1964 (starring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson). In both versions, The Killers required substantial elaborations. These movies are largely about filling in the background information that Hemingway had only hinted at in his story, which is a model of economy. (How many other reviewers do you suppose will invoke Hemingway and The Killers while discussing The Cat in the Hat? Not many I bet. That's one of the little extras we provide here at Images.)

The problem isn't whether or not elaborations exist; it's the quality of the elaborations. The film version of The Killers simply uses the short story as a starting point before beginning the process of filling in the background story. And the story they provide is unique and fascinating. However, in The Cat in the Hat, the filmmakers try to maintain the basic structure of the original tale, so they pad out the story with irrelevancies. This means we find out more about the mother (played by Kelly Preston). We see her at her job. We see her boyfriend from next door (played by Alec Baldwin). We see the problems the mother has with her son (who does the opposite of everything she says). We see the boyfriend trying to convince the mother to send the boy to military school. We see the mother dealing with her boss (played by Sean Hayes of TV's Will & Grace), who expects her to host a business party -- at her house -- this evening (so now it's especially important that the children keep the house clean). What do these elaborations add up to? Not much. The basic story structure is still here and now, with all the extras, the storytelling drags -- to the point of boredom.

The Cat is a character best utilized in small doses. But here we're stuck with him for an extended period of time. Mike Myers plays the Cat as if he's channeling Bert Lahr of Cowardly Lion fame. Myers is quite enamored with his own goofy brand of wit, as we've seen in Austin Powers and Wayne's World, but this faux wit doesn't work here. It lacks the faux dignity of Dr. Seuss' Cat and makes Myers' Cat a smarmy trickster who has a wisecrack for every situation. Surprisingly, though, almost all the wisecracks fall flat, but many film viewers won't notice the lack of laughter because the movie is so noisy that it's hard to hear yourself think, let alone determine whether the people next to you are laughing.

In the movie's favor, a large amount of the creative energy went into the art direction and special effects. So visually, The Cat in the Hat is a real stunner. Clouds spiral in the impossibly blue sky. Bright white houses rise abruptly from perfectly green, well-manicured lawns. Trees consist of stark, bare trunks that lead to globular clusters of leaves. The colors pink, yellow, light blue, and lime green predominate. Director Bo Welch was the production designer on Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice, so he knows about creating stunning visuals. But this movie needed a stronger guiding hand for the storytelling. We didn't need to know more about the mother. We didn't need to know anything about her troubles at work or about her boss. We didn't need to know anything about her boyfriend. All of these developments are utterly irrelevant.

Gone is the snappy rhythm of Dr. Seuss' tale, to be replaced by clumsy meanders that are delivered at an annoying high-strung pitch. It's as if the filmmakers knew the rhythm was gone so they tried to make up for it with intensity and scowling and screaming. So while this movie should be charming, it just ends up irritating.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]

Studio Web site: Universal Studios
Movie Web site: The Cat in the Hat



Photo credits: © 2003 Universal Studios and Dreamworks LLC. All rights reserved.