Get out the flatware, mother–the Thanksgiving turkey has arrived, even if it is in feline form. The Jim Carrey movie based on Dr. Seuss’s “How The Grinch Stole Christmas” had its problems, but it seems a positive masterpiece beside this horrendous travesty based on “The Cat in the Hat.” Mike Myers, who assumes the title role, may take some solace from the fact that in his heavy suit he’s partially obscured from view; but, alas, he’s still recognizable.
The story that scripters Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer have imposed on the situation in the original book–one can’t summon up any more exalted term, like “narrative,” for Seuss’s creation–is a decidedly flimsy one. Tykes Sally (Dakota Fanning) and Conrad (Spencer Breslin)–she a control freak, he a rule-breaker–are suddenly left in the dubious care of sleepily oblivious babysitter Mrs. Kwan (Amy Hill) when their mother (Kelly Preston) is summoned back to the real estate office where she works by her tyrannical, hygiene-obsessed boss (Sean Hayes). She tells the kids to be on their best behavior, because the house needs to be in perfect shape for a party she’s hosting for the firm that night. No sooner does she leave than the place is invaded by the Cat (Myers), who leads the children in trashing it in the name of “fun.” Also involved in the proceedings is a unctuously awful next-door neighbor, Lawrence (Alec Baldwin) who’s out to marry Mom and send Conrad off to military school, as well as two grotesque entities called Thing One and Thing Two whom the Cat summons from his mysterious treasure chest to help in the work of destruction. In the end, Lawrence is revealed as the phony he is while the kids and the Cat work together to restore the house to its original state. And, of course, it turns out that the Cat has been doing it all to teach the urchins a valuable lesson about how to behave.
This is thin gruel to begin with, but as elaborated here, it’s made even worse, winding up a cruelly abrasive, dismally earthbound cat-cophony of sight and sound. Most of the Cat’s material would be deplorable even if it were improvised on the spot, but it’s more terrible when one considers that it was apparently actually written and rehearsed. Myers doesn’t help with a loud, vulgar performance that makes the feline less charming than grotesque. Adopting a voice that sounds (usually–because he alters it occasionally) like a parody of Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion from “The Wizard of Oz,” he’s encased in an unflattering, inexpressive outfit that allows him to do little but stomp around madly and scream “Oh, yeah!” every time he engages in some supposedly madcap enterprise. (One imagines that the costume was extremely uncomfortable to wear for the entire shoot, but any problems Myers might have had with the outfit can hardly compare with the sheer torture of watching him cavort about in it.) Most of what he does and says would have been rejected in sketches on Myers’s old “Saturday Night Live” haunt–and you know how low the standards are there. (In particular, the flatulence and goo stuff, obviously designed to appeal to the basest instincts among the kiddies, should have been excised.) Among the other players, Fanning and Breslin manage to be one of the most unappealing child pairings of recent years, a couple of brats who are (apart from their garish clothes) colorless and bland. Baldwin, in perhaps the same show of zeal to make movies suitable for his youngest child that explains his earlier appearance in “Thomas and the Magic Railroad,” happily undergoes a whole series of indignities as the unfortunate Lawrence; one appreciates his motive more than the result. Certainly he fares better than Hill, who’s forced to act like Mrs. Pop ’N Fresh for the duration. As for Hayes, he’s more personable as the voice of the household goldfish–sort of a Jiminy Fishlet figure, whose reasonable objections to the Cat’s actions are consistently ignored–than as Mom’s pompous boss. (If the fish had truly been the voice of reason, he would have advised that the filmmakers wait for a different script.)
In fact, the only things that stand out in “The Cat and the Hat” are the cartoonish, brightly colored sets and costumes (by Alex McDowell, Rita Ryack, Alec Hammond and Sean Haworth); it comes as no surprise that first-time director Bo Welch is a production designer himself. He takes care of the backgrounds, to be sure, but in his new capacity he’s barely a competent traffic director; the action is messy and ill-composed. And as for those elaborate settings, they’re more a headache-inducing eyesore than an imaginative rendering of the Seuss originals.
“The Cat in the Hat” is pretty well characterized by a couple of phrases in the movie itself–“the mother of all messes” is one that sticks out. And a viewer can’t help but cringe and shake his head in agreement when one of the kids says (with reference to their destroyed house), “It’s a complete disaster.” This movie, with its irritating, badly-appointed title figure, makes one look back on an earlier catastrophe plagued by a similar problem–1986’s “Howard the Duck”–with something almost approaching fond nostalgia. Plus ca change….