At one point in "The Cat in the Hat," the Cat, played by Mike Myers, is mistaken for a pinata by a group of children at a birthday party. One by one, they line up to smack him, and the scene culminates with a husky lad swinging a baseball bat directly into the unfortunate feline's cojones.
That's a remarkably precise metaphor for what this movie does to the memory of Dr. Seuss. If the producers had dug up Ted Geisel's body and hung it from a tree, they couldn't have desecrated the man more.
The big-screen "Cat" represents everything corrupt, bloated, and wrong with mainstream Hollywood movies. It takes a slender toddler-classic about the joys of anarchy -- a 10-minute bedtime read at best -- and pumps it into 73 minutes of state-of-the-art vulgarity. It lets a pampered star get away with doing Austin Powers in a funny suit. It substitutes belches, farts, and splattery computer-generated effects for the good doctor's low-tech whimsy, and it makes sure there's enough product placement and soundtrack tie-ins to profitably extend the franchise well into next year.
This isn't about adapting a book, in other words -- it's about leveraging a brand.
So was 2000's "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas," from the same producers, and that was a massive hit. It was also a soulless, clanky affair, proof positive that a movie doesn't have to be any good to make gazillions. "Cat in the Hat" is an improvement only because it doesn't sell out Christmas in the bargain. It just sells out Dr. Seuss.
Your hopes may rise during the movie's early going. The opening credits retain the blue, red, and white of the book's color scheme, and the town of Anville has a pastel suburban goofiness that's effectively Seussian -- think a kinder, gentler Tim Burton. As the two children at the center of the maelstrom, Dakota Fanning (Sally) and Spencer Breslin (Conrad) are likable and specific: She's a neatnik, he can't walk through a room without reducing it to a shambles.
Kelly Preston makes a perky, put-upon single mom, right down to the polka-dot dress in the closet, but it's in the supporting roles that things start to go terribly wrong. Sean Hayes plays mom's boss as a germophobic buffoon, Amy Hill turns baby sitter Mrs. Kwan into a breathtakingly racist caricature, and while Alec Baldwin has a high old time as a preening neighbor with romantic designs on Preston, he's just a "Home Alone"-style bad guy shoehorned into the wrong movie. Dr. Seuss never wrote unredeemable villains into his books, of course, but I guess we should thank the studio focus-group brains for straightening him out.
When Myers shows up, "Cat in the Hat" becomes one of those "Saturday Night Live" sketches that go on and on before collapsing under their own weight. The makeup is convincing enough, but the comedian trots out the same wheezy postmodern shtick he always does -- mugging for the camera, making "naughty" double-entendres, throwing in his Fat Bastard accent for good measure. Jim Carrey did something similar in "Grinch," but at least you felt he was committed to the role or to the kids or to something. Myers acts as if he couldn't care less about the movie he's in, and his braying laugh seems like an insult the fourth time you hear it.
Then there's the matter of the film's witless toilet humor. Believe me, I'm all for the well-placed bit of flatulence, but this is Dr. Seuss, for Pete's sake, and the onslaught of burps, farts, pee, puke, and almost-bad words is stunningly miscalculated. Because a G rating is understood in Hollywood to be the kiss of death in attracting the crucial teen audience, the producers have felt it necessary to crank up the uncouthness. But when that results in Myers picking up a garden implement and sniggering "Dirty hoe," you have to ask: What were these people thinking?
Lighten up, you say? It's just a kiddie movie, you say? Fair enough, and here's my response: In the course of raising a couple of children over the last decade, I've come to appreciate all over again what made Theodor S. Geisel a genius of pointed nonsense right up there with Lewis Carroll, Ogden Nash, and Edward Lear. He loved the sound of language, for one thing (see "Green Eggs and Ham"). Old-school lefty that he was, he liked tweaking the officious, the parental, and the authoritarian (see "Yertle the Turtle"). He could explore childhood fears with uncanny power (see the surreal "What Was I Afraid Of?" or, as millions of kids know it, "The Runaway Pants"). His drawing style had an elegance of line to rival any of the 20th-century masters of illustration, from Al Hirschfeld to R. Crumb.
And he certainly reveled in the ways that manifold silly critters can bite themselves on the hindquarters, whether they're Star Bellied Sneetches, North Going Zaxes, or that poor dumb woman who named all her 23 kids Dave. Above all, Geisel had the rare courage to treat children as children, without condescension, indulgence, or cuteness.
The big-screen "Cat in the Hat" trades all that for noise and coarseness, for a nightmarishly creepy Thing 1 and Thing 2, and for a forced hipness that stands in direct opposition to the timeless silliness of the book.
Who's to blame? Let's name names. Besides Myers, there's director Bo Welch and his three-man writing team, all of whom seem to feel that children should be introduced to smutty puns as early as possible. There's Audrey Geisel, who since her husband's death in 1991 has signed over the rights to his works for one lame Broadway musical and two misbegotten films. More to the point, there's Brian Grazer of Imagine Entertainment, who as producer of both "Grinch" and "Cat" has become the go-to guy for the commercial prostitution of all things Seuss. Note to Grazer: A Smashmouth song over the closing credits? So four years ago.
The two kids get off scot-free. As for the movie: It's fast and it's shiny and may be a hit. But we do not like it. Not one little bit.
("The Cat in the Hat": 1/2)
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.