'Cat in the Hat' film does injustice to book

Posted: Thursday, November 20, 2003

The cat in the hat has come back, and he may put you and the kids in the mood for an evening alone with Dr. Seuss' original picture book to fumigate the stink of this feline's awful live-action adventure.

Shrill, boorish and witless, ''Dr. Seuss' the Cat in the Hat'' is as scenically crass and cluttered as its predecessor, ''Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas,'' the first live adaptation of one of Theodor Geisel's children's tales.

Yet ''Cat in the Hat'' lacks the one saving grace of that earlier movie, Jim Carrey's whirlwind central character. As the Cat, Mike Myers is irritating and unamusing, caterwauling in a voice that channels Charles Nelson Reilly with traces of Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion.

And while the Grinch was meant to be a little menacing, the Cat ends up a scarier figure thanks to his rather creepy facial design and Myers' overly frisky demeanor, reminiscent of the goofy uncle who should never be left home alone with the kids.

First-time director Bo Welch, a production designer whose credits include ''Edward Scissorhands'' and the ''Men in Black'' flicks, crafts a visually overbearing movie. The performances he coaxes from Myers and the co-stars amount to distasteful tumult that's hard to endure.

Screenwriters Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer, who also adapted the ''Grinch,'' do a miserable job fleshing out the nuggets of Geisel's story to feature length. The characters they add are unpleasant, the expanded story details and sight gags vapid.

From a whimsical little rhyme about a feline in a striped top hat who teaches two bored siblings a lesson on having fun, the filmmakers have strung together the insufferable story of a single mom (Kelly Preston), her control-freak daughter (Dakota Fanning) and reckless son (Spencer Breslin).

The day mom's supposed to play host for her real-estate company's party, she's called in to work, leaving the kids with a narcoleptic baby sitter and strict orders not to misbehave or mess up the house.

As the children cope with ennui, a sense of neglect and the machinations of mom's vile boyfriend (Alec Baldwin), the Cat pops in to spread mayhem and destruction.

The desperately frenzied pace fails to cover up the story's utter emptiness. The Grinch at least provided a protagonist with a character arc, who undergoes a real, though cartoonish, transformation.

All ''The Cat in the Hat'' offers is the shallow message that to have fun, you must know how. Fine for bedtime storybook reading, but piffling on the big screen.

The trappings Welch hangs on this thread of story are vulgar, a sensory overload of garish pastels and cloying characters.

Sean Hayes is disagreeable on two fronts, as mom's germ-phobic boss and the voice of the family's whiny computer-animated goldfish. The Cat's helpers, Thing 1 and Thing 2, are in the running for most obnoxious looking and sounding creatures ever to appear in a family film. The most alarming thing is that there's a ready-made sequel with Geisel's follow-up book, ''The Cat in the Hat Comes Back.'' Here's hoping this screen cat has just one life to live.

''Dr. Seuss' the Cat in the Hat,'' a Universal release, is rated PG for mild crude humor and some double entendres. Running time: 82 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.

Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 No one under 17 admitted.

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