It doesn’t speak very well of The Cat in the Hat that the only thing that got anything close to a laugh out of me was Paris Hilton’s cameo. She plays a party-goer in some weird, G-rated rave club where the denizens all wear versions of the Cat’s familiar striped hat, which may be a reference to the way ravers have adopted Dr. Seuss garb (yeah, that was big ten years ago — I saw dorky stoners wearing those things at Lollapalooza ’93). But getting back to Paris Hilton: this may be the only time in history that someone has appeared in an X-rated video (albeit made public without her consent) and a big-budget kiddie flick within the same season. Ron Howard must be sighing with relief that his name isn’t anywhere near the credits.
Howard, of course, gave us How the Grinch Stole Christmas three Novembers ago, and his producing partner Brian Grazer, noting the hefty box-office returns even though nobody seems to have liked the movie much, has turned his attention to another Dr. Seuss book and hired another big comedy star to wear pounds of face-obscuring latex as the eponymous character. (Who’s next? Adam Sandler as the Lorax? Reese Witherspoon as Daisy-Head Mayzie?) Make-up artist Steve Johnson has taken over for Rick Baker, who won an Oscar for turning Jim Carrey into the Grinch. But the Grinch was supposed to look menacing and creepy; the Cat in the Hat, with his long thick eyelashes, snub nose, and wide mouth that seems to move independently of the rest of his face, looks like nobody so much as … well … Michael Jackson.
Another Michael, Mike Myers, is under the latex, and he never lets us forget that Mike Myers is under the latex. Myers gives a restless, noisy, pop-culture-in-a-Cuisinart performance — his Cat is a direct lineal descendant of Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin (a bad precedent, it now appears). These movies insult intelligence across generational lines by providing flatulent slapstick for the kids (the lactose-intolerant Cat at one point unleashes the mother of all burps) and tired parodies of TV for parents. And there are about a hundred too many cut-aways to the bored kids Sally (Dakota Fanning) and Conrad (Spencer Breslin), whose house the Cat has invaded, as they stare at each other in bewilderment after one of the Cat’s many unfunny gags. (And you can take “gags” literally: the Cat also horks up a hairball, and is seen filling up a barf bag during a bumpy ride. Is Dr. Seuss rolling in his grave yet?)
The kids have been charged by their busy single mom (Kelly Preston) with keeping the house clean so that she can throw a party attended by her business clients and her germ-phobic boss (Sean Hayes, snipping like Will & Grace‘s Jack on overdrive). Conrad’s fate also depends on it, as Mom’s skunky boyfriend (Alec Baldwin, a long, sad distance from David Mamet) has threatened to send the kid to military school if he doesn’t shape up. Dr. Seuss’s book got along fine without any of these witless complications.
The visuals are as cluttered as the plot. The first-time director is Bo Welch, who made his name as a production designer for Tim Burton (Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns) and Barry Sonnenfeld (Wild Wild West, the Men in Black movies). Proving my theory that a creative whiz in another field promoted to director will focus on his field to the exclusion of all else, Welch makes the town of Anville (Cat‘s setting) an elaborate Pez-colored fantasyland. There’s even a mini-commercial for the “Seuss Landing” ride at Universal Studios (complete with a winking plug from Myers that’s so blatant it goes beyond irony and into conscious pimping — Mike, what has happened to you?). But look at the Seuss book and you find nothing more fancy than a few doors and windows.
Seuss knew how to tell a simple, enthralling, and funny story without hectic scenery or near-obscenities (a running “joke” in this PG-rated family film involves characters almost saying things like “ass” and “balls” before being interrupted). Brian Grazer, judging from the two Seuss movies he has uncorked, only knows how to corrupt those wonderful, simple tales. Doing Seuss in live-action isn’t doomed to failure: 1953′s The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, written by Seuss himself, contains more wonder and vision in five minutes than the entireties of the Carrey Grinch and the Myers Cat put together. Of course, it was released fifty years ago. Will people still be watching this Cat in the Hat in 2053? I bet Paris Hilton hopes so.