There's been a lot of talk on this site lately about opportunistic big-screen adaptations of beloved kiddie fodder raping commenters' childhoods. I find it all a bit silly. As people on these boards have noted, the mere fact that someone in Hollywood decided to cast James Van Der Beek in a big-screen version of Jabberjaw doesn't instantly negate your beloved childhood memories. When studios make tacky, ill-conceived adaptations of retro favorites like Scooby Doo, they're heroically carrying on Hanna-Barbera's proud tradition of lazy sub-mediocrity, not desecrating everything they stood for.
Besides, there's something transparently phony about romanticized notions of childhood innocence and purity. Ain't nobody in this cold world crueler than an 11-year-old. That holds doubly true if you're an 11-year-old with a mouth full of braces or a questionable perm yourself.
I have compiled a list of ironclad laws and restrictions regarding art I collectively like to call "Georgia Rules." Don't ask me why. I just think it has a nice ring to it. My first Georgia Rule: the words "rape," "fascist," and "Nazi" all belong behind glass imprinted with the stern warning "Break Only In Case of Emergency."
With that in mind, I'd like to discuss a fascist film made by Nazis that totally raped my childhood: 2003's The Cat In The Hat. But first a little context: back when I worked in Madison, press screenings for upcoming movies were downright non-existent. So Keith and I would often see the big new movies with the public every Friday afternoon. There's nothing quite like watching movie after movie with your mouth perpetually fixed in a scowl of disgust while everyone around you chortles with glee.
This was particularly true during 1999's The Grinch That Stole Christmas. As I watched in openmouthed horror, I could feel hearts being warmed and hear funny bones being tickled throughout the packed theater. At the end of the film I felt angry and sad. I didn't just want a refund or my 90 minutes back. I wanted revenge. I wanted to gather up a lynch mob and invade Ron Howard's heavily armed compound in search of vengeance. Surely the laws of karma would punish such hubris, right? No, not really: The Grinch went on to score largely positive reviews and became one of the top-grossing films of all time. As usual, arrogance was rewarded, not punished.
Flash-forward four years: I'm walking out of a Cat In The Hat screening in Chicago and my friend Josh Rothkopf asks me why I'm not more horrified by what we'd just seen. The truth is I used up all my righteous indignation over Dr. Seuss adaptations on The Grinch. This time out, public opinion jibed with my seething disapproval. Hat scored a shocking 3.2 user rating on the Internet Movie Database. To provide some context, even Hitler got a 3.3 on IMDB and I'm talking about the genocidal dictator, not some biopic. In a rare bit of cosmic justice Grinch started getting retroactively slammed for its resemblance to Cat In The Hat. On Metacritic, The Cat scored a cumulative ranking of 19, indicating "Extreme Dislike or Disgust." The film wasn't a giant flop commercially, but it made a fraction of Grinch's overall gross against a reported $100 million budget.
Now Dr. Seuss' books are many things: delightful exercises in whimsy and imagination, beloved cultural institutions, and literary classics for starters. What they're not, alas, are sturdy foundations for three-act live-action movies. So projects like Cat In The Hat and The Grinch transform elegant little fables into bloated blockbusters by adding gratuitous subplots, wall-to-wall pop-culture riffing, and smutty jokes. The result is a bedtime story as told by a drunken, curmudgeonly uncle. So suddenly the Prince has ulcers and a bitch of an ex-wife, the arch-villain keeps nagging the hero to go back to college and make something of himself, and the whole fandango is littered with R-rated asides and sexual innuendo.
Cat was written by a trio of Seinfeld veterans, who got the gig thanks to their punch-up work on The Grinch and while there are clever ideas and funny lines sprinkled throughout, they can't overcome the colossal miscalculation of turning Dr. Seuss' classic into a randy showcase for the improvisational comedy stylings of Mike Myers.
With Cat, our nation's long, sometimes inexplicable love affair with Myers started to hit some serious turbulence. All those years of sleepwalking through insulting blockbusters started to catch up with him. It's as if Myers took a long, hard look in the mirror during the Austin Powers wrap party and said "Well, that's enough funny for this lifetime. From here on in it's nothing but lazy recycling for me."
Consequently, Myers evidently decided that playing one of the most beloved literary figures of the 20th century meant he had to really step his game up and trot out the C material: the mothballed Charles Nelson Reilly impersonation, the wheezing laugh of infinite self-satisfaction, and of course the Noo Yawk cadences of his Linda Richman character. Myers' performance here offers a sprawling buffet of comic leftovers that make up for in quantity what they lack in quality.
Hat opens with a Seussified take on the famous Dreamworks logo and warm and fuzzy narration rich in the Good Doctor's indelible rhythms. Then the magic and wonder abruptly disappear, never to be heard from again. The first scene takes place in the real estate office of Sean Hayes, an authoritarian jerk who demands that everyone in his office washes their hands constantly, shrieks at the slightest provocation, fires a man for touching his hand, and then lunges madly for a bottle of hand sanitizer he keeps holstered to his belt. Hey, you know what kids love? Misanthropic jokes about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. I'm surprised there aren't more of them in E.T or The Wizard Of Oz.
Hayes' OCD-addled real estate tyrant is the boss of Kelly Preston, a sort of human Barbie Doll in a tight pink business suit augmented by a short skirt and ample cleavage. Preston in turn is the single mom of moppets Spenser Breslin, a butterball full of mischief, and control freak Dakota Fanning, a joyless little old lady in a little girl's body.
Preston is seeing Alec Baldwin, a grinning phony eager to send Breslin to military school, an institution he assures Breslin is "just like summer camp, except with brutal forced marches and soul-crushing discipline." Nobody gets more dark comic mileage out of a nasty phrase like "brutal forced march" or "soul-crushing discipline" than Baldwin. In a different context, the line might be hilarious. Here it just seems sour and wrong. The screenwriters came up with plenty of amusing gags; they just don't belong in this movie.
For example, the children are initially baby-sat by a grotesque old woman who turns to a Taiwanese C-SPAN feed showing a pair of politicians grappling with each other over a filibuster. As if rooting for professional wrestlers, the babysitter cheers "you tell them, Kwi-Chang! No more big government!" It's clever, but does it belong in a Dr. Seuss movie? I don't think so.
The babysitter is quickly replaced by the titular chapeau-happy feline, played in full-on star mode by Mike Myers. When Myers first spies Preston's MILFtastic photo, his red and white striped hat becomes erect and rigid in a grotesque pantomime of sexual arousal, then deflates when he learns that Preston is the children's mom.
In a strange stylistic quirk, Myers' self-infatuated anthropomorphic monster is almost always shown in a one-shot, while the kids he's ostensibly bedeviling are shown in a separate two shot. So while the film is all about Myers invading the children's space, the kids and the Cat almost never share the same frame. This perverse choice proves disastrous from both a thematic and comic perspective. It makes Myers' performance even more of a one-man show and separates him from everything outside his own tired shtick.
It's quite possible this was done out of necessity: Myers obviously had to spend hours in make-up everyday, so it's possible the kids were sent home (damned child-labor laws!) before Myers arrived on set in full make-up. It's also possible that Myers, who reportedly shares Peter Sellers' warm personality and winning way with people, angrily demanded minimal interaction with his pint-sized co-stars out of fear that they'd badger him with angry requests to say "Yeah Baby!" or "Shagadelic" for the umpteenth time.
As Myers leads the kids on a wild ride through his dimension and theirs, Hat morphs unmistakably into a stoner movie for kids filled with day-glo colors, surrealistic production design, and an endless stream of bizarre non-sequiturs only tangentially related to the action at hand. It's all pretty pictures, crass jokes, and giant, elaborate sets that look like mock-ups for theme park rides. At one point, one of the children gushes, "This is amazing! It's like a ride at an amusement park!," at which point Myers breaks the fourth wall with a plug for the Universal Theme Parks.
Cat wants to entertain kids with bright kaleidoscopic colors and parents with winking double entendres and racy dialogue, but just ends up feeling crass and mercenary. When one of the kids enthuses that jumping on the couch is just like going to the circus, Myers retorts, "Yeah but without those tortured animals or drunken clowns that have hepatitis." The really strange part is that Myers' adult wisecrack is clearly post-dubbed: it's as if director Bo Welch told Myers: "this scene has way too much magic and wonder in it. Please spoil everything with an incredibly crude one-liner that'll take everyone out of the movie and the moment."
But Cat In The Hat isn't all jokes about drunken clowns, tortured animals, or Hepatatis. It also finds time to explore the humor endemic in hairballs, castration, erections, flatulence, lactose intolerance, plumber's butt, beer, belching, cross-dressing, Myers calling a filthy garden utensil a "dirty hoe", the acronym for the Super Hydraulic Instantaneous Transporter and, last but not least, a Cat in a hat getting hit in the nuts with a bat.
So I was surprised and delighted that the same society that lauded Grinch violently rejected Cat like an errant hairball. This year sees the release of yet another big-budget, star-driven Dr. Seuss adaptation in Horton Hears A Who. Hopefully they've learned the hard lessons of Cat In The Hat and will increase the magic and wonder while paring down the dick jokes.Failure, Fiasco or Secret success: Failure