Attractively designed, energetically performed and, above all, blessedly concise, this adaptation of one of the most popular American kids' books walks the safe side of surrealism with its fur-flying shenanigans. The younger the viewers, the better reactions are bound to be, while grownups will sit in varying states of bemusement.
Although the pressure on the filmmakers to be inventive is palpable, “Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat,” is at least more appetizing than the “Grinch,” a monstrous concoction that was nonetheless a monster at the box office. Attractively designed, energetically performed and, above all, blessedly concise, this adaptation of one of the most popular American kids’ books of all time walks the safe side of surrealism with its fur-flying shenanigans. The younger the viewers, the better reactions are bound to be, while grownups will sit still in varying states of bemusement and discomfiture. Jumbo holiday B.O. is a given, as are massive profits in merchandising and ancillary.The only clouds likely to blight the cat’s ride to riches lie overseas, where Dr. Seuss is little known, if at all, a fact borne out by the commercial history of Imagine and Universal’s “Grinch.” Domestically, Ron Howard’s Jim Carrey starrer was the biggest grosser of 2000, pulling down $260 million in holiday bounty. Total for the rest of the world, however, was only $80 million, a sum foreign distrib DreamWorks will no doubt endeavor to improve upon, but which still suggests offshore resistance to Yank-style kiddy fare and holiday-themed attractions — not to mention an expression of good taste. Just as was the case with the story of the green hermit who hated Christmas, Theodor S. Geisel’s short 1957 tale about a six-foot cat who disrupts and enlivens the lives of a brother and sister on a rainy day required considerable expansion to flesh it out to feature length, even in a film as short as this one. (Pic’s running time, sans end credits, is all of 75 minutes, no doubt a recent record for brevity in a live-action studio release.) Former “Seinfeld” scripters Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer bring the same aggressively antic approach to this job as they did to “Grinch,” which means the film’s Gatling gun-spewed gags and low-batting-average joke-making unflaggingly flirts with adult tolerance levels. For an alleged comedy, “Cat” pulls few real laughs out of its hat, but does have the effect of putting the viewer into a state of low-level stupefaction, a condition that can cut either way depending upon one’s mental and physical constitution. Bug-eyed kids will likely not want to blink for fear of missing a split-second of the wonderment in the cat’s repertoire. By contrast, adults who aren’t too put off will watch with admiring interest as Mike Myers adroitly channels approximately two parts Nathan Lane to one part each Bert Lahr and “Top Cat.” First-time director Bo Welch’s estimable background as the production designer of “Edward Scissorhands,” among many other films, comes to the fore with the immediate revelation of Anville as a cookie-cutter suburban world outfitted with an idealized ’50s downtown, identical lilac houses, green interiors and likewise lime Ford Focuses in every driveway. In fact, the color-coordinated pastels and elaborately worked out combination of locations, sets and computer-generated visuals provide a soothing backdrop to the center-stage circus that could only have been more in-your-face had it been in 3-D. Fleshing out a character seen as only a pair of legs in the Seuss story, Kelly Preston is the Mom with a clean-freak martinet boss (Sean Hayes) and a noxious boyfriend (Alec Baldwin) whose simple command to her two kids as she heads to her real estate office is to keep the house spotless, since she’s hosting a company party that night. Edict is no problem for daughter Sally (Dakota Fanning), a little blond neatnik who at one point complains, “I want more rules!” By contrast, troublesome big brother Conrad (Spencer Breslin) is under threat of being sent to a military school if he doesn’t shape up. Charged with supervising the moppets for the day is round narcoleptic babysitter Mrs. Kwan (Amy Hill), who falls asleep on arrival. Enter the Cat, who, after hanging up Mrs. Kwan in the closet, starts his one-critter three-ring-circus act. A compulsive entertainer hell-bent on showing the kids how to have a good time without resorting to TV or videogames, the New Yawk-accented feline enacts the trademark ball-balancing act from the book, but to fill out the extra time must come up with a whole lot more, like a Carmen Miranda musical number, for starters. When that well runs dry after about 20 minutes, out come Thing 1 and Thing 2, crazed acrobats who do exactly the opposite of what they’re told, and go somersaulting off the sofas and walls and ceilings like hyperactive Teletubbies bent on total destruction. Pair’s gravity-defying escapades rep some of the film’s liveliest moments. But there’s limited mileage in this, too, so on the excuse of chasing the pet dog that’s escaped, the action moves outside in the Cat’s fantasmagorical vehicle, which looks equally suited to land, sea and outer space, then back to the house for its final demolition before a quick clean-up by the Cat’s many-handed custodial machine, the design team’s best invention. Film adequately reflects the story’s thematic interest in control vs. anarchy, caution vs. letting go, but never goes too far itself. Perhaps the one moment of genuine surrealism has Mrs. Kwan tuning in to watch a broadcast of the Taiwanese parliament, which consists of a fistfight. It’s an inspired but, unfortunately, lonely instance of genuine lunacy among the hundreds of similarly thrown-away gags — one which will sail unnoticed past most viewers’ eyes. It’s the sort of gag Robin Williams in his prime would have appreciated, and no doubt run with, prompting the thought that, at his insane free-associating best, Williams doing 20 minutes of in-character riffing would have been the greatest possible “adaptation” of “The Cat in the Hat.” Myers’ extremely showbizzy, “let’s-put-on-a-show” characterization is amiable and has its moments, but operates too consistently at a high pitch, lacks a subversive undercurrent and is marred by too much laughing at his own jokes. Other perfs are broadly drawn to say the least, and while the kids mostly get to stand around gawking at their guest’s hijinks, Fanning once again proves her skill as a precocious little actress of sharp timing and instincts. Production values, from the highly coordinated production and costume design, lensing, effects and cat grooming, are all that money can buy.