If you’ve ever read a book by Dr. Seuss out loud, you know there’s nothing like having those long, serpentine, nonsense words flying out of your mouth on their own current: Your voice seems to rise and fall on waves of anapestic tetrameter. On the other hand, watching the new, mega-budget Mike Myers vehicle Dr. Seuss’ TheCat in the Hat (Universal) is like being run over by a garbage truck that backs up and dumps its load on top of you. It’s a sloppy and vulgar burlesque, one of the most repulsive kiddie movies ever made.
“Vulgar” sounds prudish, so it’s important to add that when Dr. Seuss (born Theodore Geisel) began writing his books for children more than half a century ago, they were a frisky antidote to the Dick and Jane school of moral hygiene. In a universe in which parents compulsively reined in their kids (sometimes for their kids’ own good, more often for the good of their furniture and upholstery), his Cat in the Hat gave permission for frenzied destruction—destruction that could even discomfit the kids themselves, who’d inevitably internalized some of their parents’ edgy materialism. In their biography Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel, Judith and Neil Morgan quote Maurice Sendak: “[Geisel] wrote great big noisy books with noisy pictures and noisy language. … He was a bull in a china shop. … He appealed to the animalistic nature of children.” Dr. Seuss never had his own kids, which I think kept him pure: Many of us zanies don’t discover our Inner Repressive Parent until we’re worn down by children screaming in our ears, spilling stuff on things we care about, and toddling toward staircases like little suicide machines.
Sendak might have framed his Seuss assessment like that because noisy, animalistic kids are at the heart of his own classic, Where the Wild Things Are. In the books of Dr. Seuss, there’s actually something more than liberating anarchism: There’s high elegance. The title character of The Cat in the Hat is a force of disorder, but he’s disorder in a top hat, bow tie, and white gloves—the daintiest, most radiantly serene of tornados. The miracle of the Seussian universe is its balance between chaos and formality—that its whirligig cacophony arrives in all those gorgeously meticulous stanzas.
What Myers and director Bo Welch and a battery of screenwriters have done is turn The Cat in the Hat into Austin Powers with fur balls. It’s now a low-camp universe, in which a vaguely 1950s conformity is undermined by scatological humor—belch and fart gags, plus sniggery allusions to four-letter words and castration. The movie is aggressively unpleasant: The music is grating and the colors garishly ugly—pea-soup green and egg-yolk yellow mixed with pink and lilac. Director Welch is a production designer who did playfully surreal work with Tim Burton on Beetlejuice (1988) and Edward Scissorhands (1990), but he doesn’t want to move the camera, and he keeps the action in the center of the frame, where it congeals. The audience spends the first 15 minutes praying for the arrival of Myers, then the next hour praying for an anvil to fall on his head.
Myers doesn’t have the lean silhouette of Dr. Seuss’ cat. Physically, he’s closer to Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion, and his voice is Lahr’s with a dash of Cawffee Tawk Long Island: The person he really sounds like is Joanne Worley from Laugh-In. He works like mad to bring The Cat in the Hat to life: He prances around those inert frames; he even throws in a Saturday Night Live-style mock infomercial that ends with his tail being inadvertently whacked off. You can see the logic behind this gross-out sketch-comedy approach, but it’s alien to Dr. Seuss—and, more important, it’s third-rate Myers. With his genius comic radar, Myers must have sensed the slant was wrong but couldn’t turn back. Even under all that hair you can detect the expression of someone flapping his arms to keep a lead balloon aloft.
The movie comes with icky life lessons for the kids in the Cat’s charge, Sally (Dakota Fanning) and Conrad (Spencer Breslin). The Cat has come to loosen up Sally and harness the creative energy of Conrad, who has run afoul of his single mom’s suitor, a conniving sharpie named Quinn (Alec Baldwin). Quinn is the bad, repressive surrogate dad who wants to send Conrad to military school; the Cat is the good, liberating surrogate dad who wants him to care. But it’s hard to concentrate on the struggle when both dads are so revolting. The movie’s grim subtext is the wreck of Baldwin’s career—how puffy he looks, and how he never manages to rise above his material.
Sean Hayes of Will & Grace gives not one but two disgraceful performances, as the twitty boss of the kids’ pert blond mom (Kelly Preston) and the voice of a computer-generated killjoy goldfish. I can’t make up my mind which is worse. Maybe the goldfish: He actually has some verses of Seuss, which Hayes rushes through impatiently to get to the potty jokes. The kids, especially Fanning, stay recognizably human, and there’s some imagination in the scene in which the Cat and his antic Things, One and Two, finally clean the house up with their impossible clackety cleaning machines. But it might be that the scene is so enlivening because we know it means the movie is almost over.
Geisel swore off movies after a bad experience collaborating on The 5,000 Fingersof Dr. T (1953), but softened toward Hollywood after lively cartoons by Chuck Jones and an evocative treatment of The Lorax. But now, a dozen years after his death, after the bloated, pointless How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) and this latest desecration, it’s clear that his heirs have sold out the good doctor’s legacy. What could be next: Adam Sandler in Horton Hears a Poo?