Now Playing: Elf & The Cat in the Hat

Posted: Tuesday, November 25, 2003

The holiday season is upon us once again and Hollywood is marching out it's usual mix of yuletide fair. Wacky, fun, family-friendly flicks that may or may not center around Christmas. This week we'll look at a genuine treat and a big 'ol lump of coal.

Elf, starring Will Ferrell, sounds, at first note, like a typical Saturday Night Live one-note joke. A human, accidentally spirited away to the North Pole by a somewhat careless Santa, is raised by Elves, oblivious to his rather obvious heritage. When the boy is thirty, still a relative youngster by Elf standards, he sets off on a quest to find his real dad, lovably gruff James Caan, in New York City, and along the way finds time to fill the whole city with enough to Christmas spirit to fly Santa's sleigh around the world. This is a story that could easily have been either saccharin, stupid, or both, were it not for the infinitely charming Ferrell. His character, Buddy, is reminiscent of Tom Hank's Big, yet broader and somehow funnier. The Elf costume he wears, green tights, snappy yellow vest, and a bright peaked cap, would be irritating or lame on anyone else, but Ferrell is immune to derision. It's impossible not to like the guy. From the moment Buddy emerges from the Lincoln Tunnel to find his dad, I was in stitches, a smile permanently in place.

Unfortunately, Buddy emerges, and the movie as well, about twenty minutes in. The beginning of the film, while cute, has none of the momentum of the middle. Director Jon Favreau attempts to channel the old Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Rankin/Bass claymation extravaganzas, but misses the mark. For little kids, the first part of the movie will be the best - for the rest, hold on. As well, the last act loses a bit of the promise of the middle, but by then you are sucked in. Faults aside, the hour or so of Will Ferrell's Buddy the Elf trying to find his way in the big city is about the funniest, friendliest time at the movies I've had this year. This little Elf stands head and shoulders above the competition. Grade: B+

Also showing, and opening this week, is the overblown, incredibly irritating Cat in the Hat. By now, if you've spent any time at the movies, you've probably been inundated with previews for this latest in the effort to melt away any shred of positivity and decorum that existed in the fabulous works of the late Theodor S. Geisel, or Dr. Seuss. First came The Grinch, a similarly overblown, but less offensive retelling. With this latest, I'm sure Seuss is rolling in his grave.


Mike Meyers playing The Cat in the Hat.

Mike Meyers plays the titular Cat in this expansion of the popular, and incredibly simple children's story. The plot is basically this. Two kids are left at home alone. They get bored. A magical cat appears and teaches them to have fun. They learn you have to clean up after yourself. The End. This is basically the plot of the movie as well, and sums up the amount of work put into the script, character development, and storyline as well. In order to stretch that paper-thin premise into a full-length feature film, and in order to make use of their multi-million dollar star, the filmmakers basically fill time by giving you a lot more of the Cat in the Hat. Were this character watchable or even mildly tolerable, this might be ok. Unfortunately, however, the Cat is neither watchable or tolerable and, my admiration for Meyers aside, I spent his every moment on screen praying for something large and bulky to fall from the sky and put either me or him out of our misery. Not only is the Cat grotesque looking, but he seems to be channeling a perverted incarnation of the Cowardly Lion. Innuendos and bawdy humor punctuate his braying guffaws, provoking, I'm sure, the many bawling infants in the theater I attended. I was especially disturbed by the humor, or lack thereof. The writers, obviously intending that this film should work on an adolescent as well as adult level, seem to have a decidedly different definition of the word "adult."

I could go on for an hour on the idiocy of this film, it's contrived plot "twists", it's offensive take on a cherished iconic work, and it's nails-on-the-chalkboard central character, but I must give credit where credit is due. The production design of this film is excellent. A storybook world is created, populated with brightly colored houses and otherworldly foliage. The sky itself is a beautiful illustration, worthy of note. This leads me to a conclusion that I've made for only one other film - The Cat in the Hat might have been better as a silent movie. (The other film was the magnificent, yet odious French debacle The Fifth Element) Perhaps the best thing I can say about this film is that it is blessedly short, clocking in at just over an hour. In the end, the feeling you are left with is that the mess the Cat made of Mom's house, is nothing compared to the mess Hollywood has made of one of your favorite childhood memories. Grade: D

Elf and The Cat in the Hat are each rated PG for mild crude humor and double entendres, though they feel more glaring and obvious in the latter.

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