The Cat in the Hat

(Bo Welch, USA, 2003)


I recently heard Brian De Palma‘s gangster classic Scarface (1983) described as a story about "taking your Id for a walk". For the screen’s criminals, such excess always ends badly. But in kids’ movies, it is a whole different game.

Stories for children have long toyed with the thrill of bad behaviour – usually wrapping this walk on the wild side in some kind of lesson about the need for kids to be prudent, rational and obedient. In contemporary cinema, this double talk was crystallised most brilliantly in the Gremlins series directed by Joe Dante.

The Cat (Mike Myers) is the kind of "monster from the Id" typical of fantasies for children. The moment he arrives in the home of little Sally (Dakota Fanning) and Conrad (Spencer Breslin), urging his new friends to sign a suspiciously Faustian contract, we know that his pursuit of fun-fun-fun will entail maximum disorder and destruction.

Under the uncertain hand of debut director Bo Welch, this attempt to jazz up Dr Seuss becomes an odd fish indeed. In its pitch to kids it is garish but charmless, and its "moral lesson" is perfunctorily tacked on.

Welch seems more intent on playing to adults with perverse (and sometimes sadistic) touches of queer humour, such as the intensely creepy scenes between Joan (Kelly Preston) and Larry (Alec Baldwin), and a scary pair named Thing 1 and Thing 2 who resemble refugees from Matthew Barney’s The Cremaster Cycle.

The film tries and instantly discards a dozen different styles, from folksy sentimentality to comic-book surrealism – with a couple of stops along the way for musical numbers.

Seuss’s rhymes float in and out of the film only occasionally, lest they get in the way of what Myers does best – improvise a so-called character who is more like a medium for a thousand pop culture quotations. In the best Jerry Lewis tradition, this hip Cat is for a split second Jewish or Czech, gay or straight, male or female, child or adult, earthling or alien.

This film, although occasionally amusing, never gets near the anarchic highs of Drop Dead Fred (1991), Monkeybone (2001) or Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988) on which Welch served as production designer. It screams its all-stops-out, high-key zaniness relentlessly – a headache-inducing mode of the grotesque.

© Adrian Martin April 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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