Seuss on Screen Part 3: The Cat in the Hat

Wind back the clock, if you will, to late 2002. At the time, I’m ten years old. I’m in the movie theatre foyer and I can’t remember what we were going to see. Now, I’m looking around at all the posters advertising new movies, when a giant cardboard cut out made me jump in terror.

The cut out? The Cat in the Hat. You could only see a tiny bit of the Cat, but it gave me chills. This should have been my first sign of impending doom.

It wasn’t.

After my heart stilled, I began to smile at the thought of a Cat in the Hat movie. I loved the book. I loved the sequel. Mike Myers was going to be the Cat? Sure, he was funny. After The Grinch, what could be better? Oh, how wrong I was.

To say this movie failed hard would be one of the biggest understatements ever made. It’s not just bad, it’s horrifying. I still feel unclean for having seen it. It’s not only the worst of the Seuss movies, up against some pretty stiff competition, it’s one of the worst book-to-film re-imaginings in the history of mankind. It’s so famously awful, it prompted Dr Seuss’ widow to ban all live action adaptations of her husband’s work.

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As always, let’s begin with the source material. The Cat in the Hat was written in 1957 in response to America’s crippling illiteracy rate among children, and their learn-to-read books known as ‘primers’. Dr Seuss believed children were not reading because their books such as the Dick and Jane series, were dead boring. The characters and stories were unnaturally perfect, therefore not interesting or relatable.
Author William Spaulding invited Seuss to dinner in 1955 and presented him with a challenge: write a book kids couldn’t put down. He gave Seuss a list of 348 words every child should know (Seuss wrote The Cat in the Hat using 236 words). Seuss conceived of the idea for the story by scanning the list he had been given and chose the first two words that rhymed. Cat and hat were the winners.

Overall, Cat in the Hat is a fun little book. It’s not particularly story driven (therefore not the best choice for a movie, but I’ll get to that) but the characters are great, the power struggle between the Fish and the Cat is enjoyable, and the children are normal children. Most children would read this and probably not realise they were learning new words, which is the whole point. And the message? “It is fun to have fun, but you have to know how,” In other words, fun is not a bad thing. A little mischief is fine, as long as it doesn’t goes too far and you can clean up at the end. And that’s the beauty of Seuss’ writing. He even reportedly said to his first wife Helen “What’s wrong with kids having fun reading without being preached at?”

Like I said above, Cat in the Hat is one of the hardest adaptations to pull off than something like The Grinch or The Lorax, but it’s not impossible. Think of all the possibilities with the Cat and the potential for wild, imaginative scenarios. I keep hearing there’s going to be an animated remake of the movie at some point and while my hopes are not high, I’d like to believe it could be better than…this.

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What were they thinking?

Let’s get this over with.

Mike Myers plays the Cat in a phenomenally failed performance. He is horribly miscast, although to be fair I don’t think ANY actor could have made this script work. Same goes for the other actors in this movie. Spencer Breslin and Dakota Fanning as Conrad and Sally are blander than rice cakes, Kelly Preston is more fragile than a porcelain doll and Alec Baldwin is so cartoonishly evil I’m surprised he doesn’t have a moustache to twirl.
I’m not necessarily blaming the cast for their performances; like I said, the script is atrocious. This movie is a failure on everyone’s part, especially the studio behind it. Whoever wrote this needs a smack in the face with a brick and a lesson on writing good scripts. These characters are just so terribly developed. Sally and Conrad? Good grief, they’re both walking stereotypes. The kids in the book were just normal children. That’s why the moral about a little mischief being okay is still balanced out with responsibility. Here, Conrad’s out of control, though it’s never explained why, and Sally’s only interested in bossing everyone around (again, never explained why). Stereotypes are not a good starting point for character arcs!
The mother? Total wet wipe. She’s dull as a bucket of rocks and a complete idiot for not seeing Alec Baldwin’s lies. Who lets their boyfriend talk them into considering military school? That doesn’t even make any sense!
Speaking of Alec Baldwin, talk about weak characterisation. He might as well be wearing a sign saying I AM THE ANTAGONIST. And while I’m on the subject, why does this movie even NEED an antagonist? If you’re going to add one in, at least make them interesting! This one is completely one note. He has the flimsiest of excuses for existing in the first place, and don’t even bother with motivations for getting rid of the children. The writers forgot to give him one. He apparently just doesn’t like kids. Big deal. So why would he even want to marry a woman with two kids?

The Fish is completely shoved to the side in favour of the Cat’s zany antics, and you can forget about his established existence as the voice of reason. He’s just a nervous nelly played entirely for laughs and only appearing when the plot remembers he’s supposed to be there. The babysitter who slips into a coma five minutes in? Completely pointless. There’s really nothing to even say about her.

And now, let’s get to the Cat himself.
I get that the Cat is the Seuss mascot, and the book is very simply written. But there’s expanding on a character and there’s making him a total raving maniac. You’d never read the book and think the Cat was a sociopath like he is in the movie. The Cat is meant to be fun and mischievous, not spouting R-rated jokes and running around laughing like an axe murderer. That’s not what the Cat is about.

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An adaptation done right

If you want to an example of expanding on a character while still being true to the source material, look at the 1971 animated special. To be fair, Dr Seuss wrote the teleplay for this one, so it would make sense that all changes work well. But let’s put that aside and look at the Cat.
He comes in, the fish panics and tells him to go. The Cat leaves, then charges back in saying he’s lost his moss-covered three-handled family gradunza and asks the kids to help him find it, therefore tricking them into making a mess.
The best comparison I can draw to the Cat in this is perhaps Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka. Remember how he was whimsical, elegant and fun, but also had a slightly diabolical edge? You didn’t know what he was thinking, but you did know he’d already planned out every step of the journey. And that’s the sense you get with the 1971 Cat. Voice actor Allan Sherman really does a great job, giving the perfect blend of delightfully wicked and whimsy. You never get the sense that he’s straight up evil though. Unlike Myers, who’s more interested in making terrible jokes and grinning at the audience. Plus, the stuff he gets into is just way too crazy and mean! It goes beyond the realm of harmless fun and straight into borderline criminal activity. I don’t know who came up with this, but I’m prepared to bet they were dropped.

I should point out that the director of the movie is Bo Welch, a production designer who’s worked on a lot of Tim Burton films. And I will say, the sets in the movie do look very nice. The costuming and makeup? Designed with an Etch-A-Sketch and fed through a threshing machine. That’s the nicest possible way I can put it.
At least in The Grinch the makeup looked like the character. I had no trouble believing it was the Grinch on screen. And also, as I said in my last review Jim Carrey was able to physically and facially work with the restrictions of the makeup and costume.
As for Cat in the Hat, while the production design might have been nice, the costuming and makeup were not, and this is reflected in the performances. Mike Myers simply didn’t have the physical or expressive ability to make that costume work. And there’s a special place in movie hell for the people who designed that makeup/suit, because it’s the stuff nightmares are made of.
By the way, you’ll notice I haven’t mentioned Thing One and Thing Two. And there’s a reason for that. I won’t sleep for weeks if I lay eyes on them again.

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BURN IT! SEND IT TO HELL! KILL IT BEFORE IT DIES!!!

Poor characters and terrifying visuals, how is the story itself?
You’ll be sorry you asked.
To say they deviated from the source material would be like calling a tornado a ‘slight breeze’. Even as an eleven year old in the theatre watching this train wreck I distinctly remember thinking it was being pretty unfaithful to the book. I didn’t even think they could pull of a sequel because they used the entire driving plot point of The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. After the movie I said to my brother it was 2% accurate to the original. And if an eleven year old can pick that up, you are in trouble, movie.

Instead of being about kids learning to have fun in a healthy manner, there’s forced social commentary which has no development or is even that interesting. There’s very little rhyming which, hello, is what Dr Seuss is best remembered for. We don’t care about the characters, so nobody is concerned how they solve what little problems they have. The Cat is too scary to look at, no human could sleep like that babysitter does and there’s no point in having the box be a gateway into another world. And let’s be honest, that plot thread was only there to make that truly horrific advertisement for Universal Studios.

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You are dead to me, movie

Directly advertising, holding up brouchures and saying “Cha-ching”? That is hitting a new low. It’s the single biggest sell-out ever put on screen. And that includes the product placement in Man of Steel.
Don’t even get me started on the adult ‘humour’. Honestly, what was the point of the sexual innuendo and bad language in a freaking Dr. Seuss movie? There is no point, and no way to make it work.
The blatant disrespect shown in the movie only proves that the filmmakers don’t understand the source material. They see it as a ‘simple kid’s book’, so it’s not like they actually have to try. How could a ‘simple kid’s book’ possibly say anything deep or meaningful?

Well, I have news for you, movie. A lot of junior reading material is not only deep, it can also be far deeper than a lot of adult writing. Dr Seuss understood this and he treated children as thinking human beings. One of my favourite Seuss quotes? “Adults are just obsolete children and to hell with them,”  
Seeing this movie makes me understand what he means. Adults often forget what it’s like to be a child and therefore underestimate them. Underestimate their intelligence. Their understanding. Their capacity to learn. I guarantee Seuss would be saying the same thing today about this movie and the people who made it so poorly.

Normally, I will at least attempt to see the good in something. The only good thing in this movie? The production design. That’s it. It fails on every other level, and I almost reached my breaking point while suffering through it.
You can argue that The Grinch wasn’t faithful to the original story. But for all it’s flaws, The Grinch is still its own universe and creation. It’s not a money-grabbing corporation shill. There’s still a moral and at the very, very least, an attempt to tell a story.
Cat in the Hat doesn’t just disrespect Dr. Seuss, it is straight up spitting on his grave. I cannot even comprehend the mindset of the people responsible for it. Even taking out the fact that it’s insulting to Seuss’ work, it’s still the cheapest and most obnoxious of corporate cash ins ever committed to celluloid. There is no respect for the source material, the audience, the message or anything. It’s just there to suck out everything that’s good and pure and decent about humanity.

I don’t even know what else there is to say about it. If I could, I would personally hunt down every copy of this…thing, shatter them with a moss-covered three-handled family gradunza and set them alight.
But I can’t. So all I can do is say avoid this movie like the freaking plague. For crying out loud, do NOT expose yourselves or vulnerable children to it. Read the book, watch the animated special, go to the Seuss land at Universal Studios for all I care. Just stay the heck away from Cat in the Hat. Stay. Away.

Next week: The Lorax

One thought on “Seuss on Screen Part 3: The Cat in the Hat

  1. Pingback: Top 10 Dr Seuss books | AbStar921 – Musical Critic

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