Film Reviews

Kitty Litter

If you're hankering for a movie about an awkward yet lovable "outsider" type who wanders into a pastel mock-up of Middle America and cajoles the straights to get saucy, you're in luck. It's called Edward Scissorhands, and it's been available on video for years. Renting it will absolve you of having to endure Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat, which is, in essence, Edward with a queasy mean streak, no concept of pacing apart from "faster," and such a remarkable rift between its charming source material and its heinous cinematic realization that the producers may as well have skipped the hassle of securing licensing rights and simply called this mess Mike Myers: Asshole in Fur.

Where to begin. Well, although somebody at Universal deigned to release an invitation to this particular screening, this critic's arrival was greeted with the sort of welcome one usually extends to the flu. Thus, it may seem to some like this review is being written as sour grapes toward a chilly reception from an understandably nervous movie studio, but that it ain't. Some Universal movies are actually good, whether or not we're allowed to review them in a fair, timely manner. The Cat in the Hat happens to suck, for at least 10,000 reasons. Big kiss to everyone in PR, though.

Now for some sloppy pop-culture film theory. Without stealing liberally from ingenious illustrator Edward Gorey, celebrated "visionary" director Tim Burton would be schlepping coffee for Michael Eisner. Essentially, from Pee-wee to Beetlejuice to the Penguin to Jack Skellington to the superb Johnny Depp triptych to Marky Mark to, apparently, Albert Finney in the forthcoming Big Fish, Burton--like most of Hollywood--simply keeps telling the story of the misunderstood freak over and over again. But at least his movies are whimsical, visually appealing and clearly made with love. Imagine a Tim Burton movie without Tim Burton, however--all mayhem, no mystique--and you've got either the strangely successful Shrek (also, notably, featuring Myers as a gaseous ass) or this train wreck called The Cat in the Hat.

There are people around the world who work hard in manufacturing, health care, retail, public service, transportation, you name it. They need colorful, inventive movies so their kids can watch something besides their parents fighting. This matters. And this is why Cat is so patently offensive. Yes, it's digitally zany and very sparsely chuckle-worthy, but this attempted marketing coup is also poisonously self-congratulatory (a plug for the Universal theme park?) and disturbingly cruel (literal domestic violence). Fans of Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel really needn't bother: His famous book with its stately little rhymes is barely here at all. Even yesterday's ravers with their stovepipe "Cat" hats will probably puke up all that X when they see their attempt at a psychedelic revolution bastardized into a sub-Zion disco party held, incongruously, inside what appears to be a small, urban pissoir. Kind of fitting, really, because this Catty movie seems doggedly determined to pee on anything clever, touching or creatively inspiring the book ever had to offer.

To wit, or lack thereof, Burton's former set designer Bo Welch makes his feature directorial debut with this Cat shit, and indeed the somewhat surreal design (here by Alex McDowell of Minority Report, weirdly enough) is almost the only element one can recommend. The elegance of the book and even the "revisionism" of the Allan Sherman-narrated cartoon version are utterly blitzkrieged. En route to a litter box bursting with disposable pop-culture clumps, we get Myers as the "6-foot-tall talking feline" (nice try; Myers is 5'7") who appears rather arbitrarily in the home of hyper little Conrad (Spencer Breslin) and his prissy sister Sally (Dakota Fanning). Their single mother (Kelly Preston) is a real estate grunt enslaved by a schmucky germophobe boss (Sean Hayes, also voicing the viciously abused animated Fish), thus their home must look picture-perfect for a company party later in the day. Which, of course, proves rather challenging once the Cat shows up, toting his impish friends Thing 1 (two separate actors in rubberface, vaguely voiced by Dan Castellaneta) and Thing 2 (ditto) for a day of "spiritually educational" destruction.

Coulda shoulda woulda. This project had loads of potential, alas, even before Tim (né Dick) Allen jumped ship as the previous choice for Cat. The writing here is unpardonably rotten (scatological, joyless), yet erstwhile Seinfeld hacks Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer made the most of Universal's Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas and, weirdly, that movie worked. Actually, scratch that praise and credit Jim Carrey because he knows that really impressive comedy has anger and near-madness behind it, not the cutesy "look-at-me!" crap that's Myers' stock-in-trade. Here the little guy gets tarted up in a wide array of costumes (one singularly funny ultra-PC Rasta punk, terribly unfunny others, including a redneck caricature, a maniacal faux-Brit and a tropical honey), but all he manages to muster for the Cat proper is a truly nauseating channeling of late freak Paul Lynde marked by trace elements of the Cowardly Lion. Between getting kicked in his supposedly snipped cat-balls (an unfunny incident that admittedly prompts surprising use of the Commodores' "I'm Easy") and beating the hell out of the narcoleptic baby sitter (Amy Hill) you can see him visibly struggling to ride out the shitstorm. And you can see him failing.

Other items here include an odd Clint Howard cameo, a cutesy little dog and a not-so-cutesy big dawg (Alec Baldwin). In an attempted Shrek cash-in, there's Smash Mouth doing an unforgivable Beatles cover, plus an otherworldly climax that's merely an expensive rip-off of Richard Elfman's cult hit The Forbidden Zone. But for me it all clicked when I noticed--pardon the name-drop--Robin Williams sitting a few seats away. No idea what the star of kiddie slop like Hook and Flubber thought of this movie, nor even if he was considered for the role of the Cat. But his presence in the audience, rather than on the screen, revealed that even a stumbling funnyman knows how to sidestep a turd box.

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Gregory Weinkauf